May 11, 2003
Infomercials for a new "cure-all" are the most aired in the country, with more exposure than the George Foreman Grill or the Girls Gone Wild videos. But when it comes to the health claims being made, experts are skeptical.
Ad pitchman Bob Barefoot has told millions of people that taking a mineral supplement called coral calcium will help cure some of the most dreaded diseases known to mankind.
"I've had a thousand people tell me how they've cured their cancer," Barefoot says in the infomercial. "I've witnessed people get out of wheelchairs from multiple sclerosis just by getting the 'Coral.' "
The sad truth, however, is that Bob Barefoot's claims are dubious at best, according to Dr. Stephen Barrett, a consumer advocate who runs the Web site "Quackwatch." Barrett adds that, in many cases, Barefoot is just plain wrong.
"He talks about 200 diseases being due to calcium deficiency," Barrett says. "I mean, that's just total nonsense. ... The commercial is filled with preposterous claims that are used to market products."
Sands of Okinawa
According to Barefoot and the late-night infomercials, the product works because of the sand from the coral reefs of Okinawa, Japan, an island widely regarded as one of the healthiest places on Earth.
"The Okinawans just happen to live on an island of pure calcium ... and they dig up this coral sand and put it in their food," he says in the infomercial. "And they've been eating it for hundreds of years."
But Dr. Bradley Willcox, a Harvard-trained physician and researcher who has spent years studying the amazing health of Okinawa residents, is dubious.
"He is way off," says Willcox, of the Pacific Health Research Institute. "Not even close."
In one infomercial, Barefoot claims, "A common denominator all over the world between cultures who are disease-free and live long is the fact that they eat 100,000 milligrams of calcium a day."
Again, Willcox is skeptical: "Nobody takes 100,000 milligrams of calcium a day. Nobody could survive taking 100,000 milligrams of calcium a day."
Coral calcium costs about $40 a bottle, but experts say there's no evidence it is any different than a regular calcium supplement consumers can get at local drug stores for about 10 times less.
Experts advise checking with a doctor before taking any nutritional supplements, especially for an existing illness like cancer.
Elaine Wright of Toledo, Ohio, says it may seem naï¿½ve that she ordered coral calcium. But for some consumers, the promise of a miracle can be too hard to ignore.
"You don't want the disease; you want to cure it," says Wright, who suffers from breast cancer. "You want to try anything you can to be a healthy person again."
Barefoot turned down ABCNEWS' repeated requests for an on-camera interview.
We tracked him down to his headquarters -- a trailer in the Arizona desert -- but the infomercial star scurried out of sight before we could speak with him.
Later, Barefoot's attorney sent a written statement saying Barefoot had received "a substantial number of testimonials from individuals regarding the beneficial effects his coral calcium products have had."
"Mr. Barefoot believes ... there is medical and scientific evidence to support the view that coral calcium indeed provides health benefits," the statement added.
Also cashing in on the coral calcium craze is Barefoot's partner in the infomercials, the millionaire businessman Kevin Trudeau -- a twice-convicted felon who's spent time in federal prison for fraud, and has been cited by the government for making deceptive claims in at least six other infomercials. Trudeau also declined requests for an interview.
Meanwhile, Elaine Wright continues her battle with cancer, a battle she says has been made more difficult by those who sell false hope.
"I think they're just trying to get rich off people's illnesses," she says.
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