More MS news articles for March 2001

Americans Spend $20 Billion a Year On Quacks

Thursday, March 8, 2001

Bob Laughlin has always been open to trying alternative therapies. Herbal remedies, Chinese medicine, "I've tried everything," he says.
So when it was time for the 56-year-old to undergo a physical exam, he didn't think twice about visiting an unlicensed practitioner with a Voll machine. After all, the device, he had read, could predict health as well.
"I thought it would be pretty fun," says Laughlin, owner of a database-systems firm in Chicago. "Then I was told I had cancer."
"Cancer" of the prostate, hypothalamus and large and small intestines. His practitioner said it was bad, but not to worry. "I'll have you healed in a couple weeks," Laughlin recalls her saying.
So in January, she gave him some homeopathic medicines and then billed him -- for $287.
"I'm an idiot," Laughlin now concedes. "I was snowed."
Often perceived as a phenomenon of the distant past, quackery is now as large an industry as it ever was, despite government efforts to the contrary.
Americans spend about $20 billion per year on fraudulent medical devices and drugs. And many more people are being swindled than you might think.
"We're really in quackery's golden age," says Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist and author of The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America. "Hundreds of thousands of people are being cheated every year."
The health-fraud business has truly come of age, having grown more deceptive and even more expensive, and never ceasing to fool people just the same.
Thank the Internet, desperate health-care consumers and lax federal regulations. Many health-care experts believe it is this confluence of factors that has made Americans, now more than ever, the easiest of prey for unscrupulous snake-oil salesmen.
"There's a sucker born every minute, but there's a crook born every hour to take advantage of them," says Bob McCoy, founder of the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis.
McCoy's museum is made up of 325 devices spanning 200 years of health fraud. The products fill up the 2,200-square-foot center, and many modern quack devices -- and there are a lot of them, McCoy says -- are simply turned away.
"We don't have any room for them."
The most common perception seems to be that products couldn't be marketed in this country if they weren't safe, says Rich Cleland, a senior attorney in the Federal Trade Commission's division of advertising practices. In reality, it doesn't quite work that way.
Dietary supplements, for example, need not undergo rigorous clinical testing before hitting supermarket shelves. There are many products that no government health agency reviews before they are marketed.
And while manufacturers of medical devices aren't supposed to make unsubstantiated claims about their product's healing powers, many do.
In recent years, the Federal Trade Commission has sent out more than a thousand letters to operators of Internet sites warning them to quit making questionable claims. But following up on the matter, the commission found only 28 percent of the manufacturers had shut down their sites or removed the claims after being warned.
"There are literally thousands of sites on the Internet that are selling questionable devices," says Cleland. And there are simply not enough government resources to monitor them all.
"It really is a consumer-beware market."
Yet some shoppers seem to have lost their ability to be skeptical of gadgets promising miraculous -- and unrealistic -- results. Rather than learning from a history riddled with tales of sales people peddling bogus devices, the U.S. public has grown even more vulnerable to quackery.
"Most often, people simply lack suspicion," says Barrett, who operates a watchdog Web site,
Barrett and others cite the alternative medicine movement as a main reason for this. As society has become more accepting of yoga, acupuncture and chiropractic care, it has also begun to embrace fringe procedures that may cause more harm than good. Yet many Americans are quick to try them anyway, believing that anything being peddled as new or different must be an improvement to standard medical care.
"One of the biggest myths that is circulating now is that 'all-natural' is all safe. Arsenic and hemlock are natural," Cleland says.
Purchasers of health aids sold over the Internet and through infomercials have no guarantee they are getting something safe and effective, or that it contains any active ingredients at all.
"Most alternative medicine is quackery by another name," insists Wallace Sampson, editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine and a retired clinical professor of medicine at Stanford.
As people have become more open to new therapies, he says, the term quackery has essentially been dropped from the lexicon. In its place: alternative or complementary.
Our rush to try new treatments can also be tied to a sense of desperation. Often, patients just want to find a drug or device that will help them, Barrett says. Not all, however, believe the products will work, but some reason they have nothing to lose.
Cancer, multiple sclerosis and AIDS patients are easy targets, and some have squandered their life's savings in search of a cure.
"We've seen claims like 'Take this product and it will completely reverse the damage done by arthritis in as little as five days,' " Cleland says. "If you're a sufferer of arthritis pain, that's a hard claim to resist."
For some, the attraction to unconventional treatments results from a sense of alienation from mainstream medicine. They may harbor distrust of the medical profession, the food industry, government agencies and drug companies. Others believe they are more savvy than researchers and physicians and therefore better able to tell whether a method will work for them.
In this environment, quackery has flourished.
Some questionable devices of years past -- especially light machines for such things as building muscle and nerves -- have even begun to make a comeback, McCoy says.
"A lot of this is what we refer to as old wine in new bottles," he says.
And there's a new medium -- the Internet -- which has made it easier for hucksters to reach a wider audience while hiding behind a cloak of anonymity. Well-planned Web pages can have an air of authority, containing scientific and medical jargon that sounds legitimate enough. In this way, consumers are exposed to a great deal of misinformation, leaving them not sure what to believe.
"The Internet has really become the medium of choice for a lot of health-fraud purveyors," says Cleland, and that has had sweeping repercussions.
In previous centuries, "While you had the snake-oil salesman in his covered wagon or his Model T going from county to county, he could only do one fair at a time. With the Internet," says Cleland, "these people can become national and international marketers. They have the ability to injure many times more consumers."