Scores of pro-homeopathy supporters demonstrated outside the Brighton Centre today ahead of doctors voting on whether homeopathic remedies should be banned on the NHS.

Medics at the British Medical Association (BMA) conference voted three to one in favour of banning NHS funding for homeopathic remedies and removing support for the UK's four homeopathic hospitals.

They said NHS doctors should not be trained in homeopathy and remedies should be taken off shelves "labelled medicines" and put on shelves "labelled placebos".

One doctor described homeopathy as "nonsense on stilts" while another said patients would be better off buying bottled water.

But some doctors said their patients seemed to benefit despite no clinical trial evidence that homeopathy worked.

Proposing the motion, Dr Mary McCarthy, a GP from Shropshire, said homeopathic doctors claimed it made people feel better.

"Lots of things make you feel better - a sunny day, the smell of the sea, a hug, retail therapy," she said.

"It can do harm by diverting patients from conventional medical treatments."

She said the issue was about NHS funding and promotion and would not prevent homeopaths from practising.

Dr Tom Dolphin, a member of the BMA's junior doctors committee, also backed the motion.

He said he had previously described homeopathy as witchcraft, but now wanted to apologise to witches for making that link.

"Homeopathy is not witchcraft, it is nonsense on stilts.

"It is pernicious nonsense that feeds into a rising wave of irrationality which threatens to overwhelm the hard-won gains of the Enlightenment and the scientific method.

"We risk, as a society, slipping back into a state of magical thinking when made-up science passes for rational discourse and wishing for something to be true passes for proof.

"Let's stop wasting scarce NHS money on something with plenty of evidence to show it does not work.

"Strike a blow for science and protect our patients from this insidious practice."

Dr John Garner, a GP from Edinburgh, spoke against the motion, saying it would prevent those patients who benefited from homeopathy from having access to their treatments.

"There's a big push that we practise evidence-based medicine, however, patients don't always have evidence-based symptomology."

He said he had seen patients with a range of complaints but investigations had found no cause.

"Some of these patients, for whatever reason, find benefit and relief in homeopathic treatments, because of a placebo effect or not."

Homeopathy, which is a 200-year-old system, has been funded on the NHS since its inception in 1948.

It differs from herbal medicine in that it relies on substances being diluted many times, something the committee said could not be scientifically proven to work.

In February, MPs said homeopathic remedies should no longer be funded on the NHS.

They said there was no evidence the drugs were any more effective than placebo - the same as taking a sugar or dummy pill and believing it works.

Furthermore, they said the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should not allow homeopathic medicines to carry medical claims on their labels.

Just four MPs out of seven "active" members of the committee voted on the report, with former Labour MP Ian Stewart dissenting from its verdict.

He said the committee had refused to take into account that homeopathy worked for some people.

There are four homeopathic hospitals in the UK in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow.

Estimates on how much the NHS spends on homeopathy vary, with the Society of Homeopaths putting the figure at £4 million a year including the cost of running hospitals.

One survey of more than 6,500 patients treated at Bristol Homeopathic Hospital found 70% reported improved health.

London-based GP Paddy Glackin spoke against the motion.

He said the BMA was in danger of "scientific fundamentalism" and GPs were guilty of prescribing "all sorts of things on a Friday afternoon to patients".

He added: "Just because we cannot show something works, doesn't mean it's not useful."

Today's vote means the wording of the motion now becomes BMA policy.

A statement from The Society of Homeopaths said: "There are approximately 600 doctors in the UK who use homeopathy, over 55,000 patients a year are seen through homeopathic hospitals, many with conditions not helped through other specialists in the NHS.

"The cost of homeopathy on the NHS is low - just 0.001% of the £11 billion drugs budget.

"Homeopathic appointment and hospital costs are approximately £4 million per annum, compared with the cost of anti-depressants alone, which was £291.5 million in 2007."

It said a study commissioned by the Prince of Wales - a known supporter of homeopathy - in 2005 found that when patients were treated with complementary and alternative medicines, there was a 30% drop in the number of GP appointments and 50% cost savings on prescriptions.

It said members of the Faculty of Homeopathy, who are also members of the BMA, had been refused permission to address the conference.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "The Department is considering issues to do with homeopathic remedies and hospitals as part of the Government's response to the Science and Technology Committee's report on homeopathy.

"The response will be issued soon."