Quack alert: detecting phony health claims: become a savvy consumer and learn to protect yourself from quacks

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Lose weight while you sleep!” This same “health discovery” product also promises to build muscles quicker, heal wounds faster, reduce the amount of sleep needed, improve memory, tighten skin, strengthen bones, and even grow back hair. “The list truly goes on and on,” reads the ad.

Sound too good to be true? It is. Yet this real spam E-mail–and thousands of other ads through television, radio, magazines, and Web sites–push unproven and even unsafe health products.

To spot scams, you need a healthy dose of skepticism and the following information.

Buyer, Beware!

Quackery is the promotion of unproven health products and treatments without a scientifically sound basis. It can include deliberate lies, as well as “sincere” but misinformed and mistaken practices, notes Stephen Barrett, M.D. He operates the Quackwatch Web site, which catalogs dozens of examples of dubious “cures.”

Either way, quacks stand to make money from gullible consumers. And you can’t assume that something wouldn’t be sold if it didn’t work.

A lot of consumers think a product wouldn’t be on the market if it wasn’t safe,” says American Dietetic Association spokesperson Cynthia Sass at the University of Southern Florida. “That’s not necessarily true.”


Consider a drink or pill sold as a dietary supplement, for example. Because supplements generally don’t need Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, manufacturers don’t have to prove they’re safe and effective. To a large degree, what goes into the product is up to the manufacturer.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) forbids false and misleading advertising. State governments license health care providers and have their own laws against fraud too. Yet, no government agency screens ads for truthfulness before consumers see them. And the government simply doesn’t have the resources to review all published ads for tens of thousands of products.

As a result, consumers cannot assume that anyone has reviewed or approved any particular ad or product, warns FTC attorney Richard Cleland. “Consumers have to judge for themselves,” he says.

The legal term for that is caveat emptor. Or in plain English, “Buyer beware.”

Why Quackery Sells

Many people simply don’t question what they read, hear, or see in the media. They are too trusting. Some consumers also feel overconfident. They doubt anyone will dupe them, so they don’t question claims closely.

Other people want to be different. They like the idea of “natural” health products versus conventional medicines, even though “natural” products can also pose risks. Or people may rebel against the “medical establishment.”

Other people feel desperate. Bombarded by media images of rail-thin models and buff actors with rock-hard abs, many teens may already have a poor body image. Ads touting miracle weight loss or overnight muscle-building milk this vulnerability for all it’s worth.

People with certain diseases are especially vulnerable. Bogus treatments for sexually transmitted diseases, cancer, and other illnesses appeal to people desperate for relief. They want to believe there’s a magic fix out there. Unfortunately, many diseases have no known cures–just treatments to ease symptoms or slow their progress.

Fear fuels quackery too. After the September 11 attacks in 2001, companies promoted products such as home test kits for anthrax. After outbreaks of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), scam artists promised protection against the deadly virus with masks, personal air purifiers, sprays, and supplements. None of the products was proven to work.

What’s the Harm?

The amount of health fraud is hard to estimate,” says the FTC’s Cleland. “But in all likelihood, it is in the tens of billions of dollars per year.” That includes everything from bogus arthritis and cancer cures to weight-loss gimmicks, bodybuilding promotions, and breast-enhancement cons. “The magnitude of the problem is pretty overwhelming at times,” says Cleland.

Quackery costs more than money. Real health is at stake. “You have a lot of products out there that no one has ever tested for safety,” notes Cleland. “No one knows for sure what’s in the products. And when we do know what’s in some of the products, we cringe.”

For example, various weight-loss products contain ephedra or other stimulants. “These can kill people,” says Cleland. Other products, like breast-enhancement creams, may contain chemicals that affect the body’s hormone balance. No one knows the long-term effects of such products on adults, let alone maturing teens.

Beyond this, quackery victims may delay getting the treatment they need for serious medical conditions. While cancer patients pursue bogus treatments, the disease can spread throughout their bodies. Likewise, HIV-positive people who rely on unapproved test kits or herbal treatments may delay getting accepted medicines to manage the disease. While the incurable virus progresses, they risk infecting other people too.

Get the Facts

Your first line of defense against quackery is reliable health information. Keep up with health news by reading articles from mainstream magazines and newspapers’ science reporters. Don’t rely on ads in back pages of magazines.

As seen on TV” isn’t reliable either. Nor can you trust infomercials. Both cable and broadcast channels want to sell airtime, and quacks are often willing to pay the ad rates. Legitimate news broadcast can provide useful information, but you should still check things out further.

The Internet contains both reliable and questionable health information. How can you tell the difference?

When you go on-line, make sure you go to a credible site,” says Sass. Some search engines let you limit results to .gov, .org, or .edu domains. Generally speaking, government Web sites, universities, major medical centers, and mainstream health organizations are credible. They’re not trying to bias or sway you. Rather, they give facts so you can make an informed decision.

If someone’s trying to sell you something, that’s where you open your eyes and your ears a little bit more,” says Sass. Be wary of Web sites that sell health care products. Be doubly suspicious of spam, or junk E-mail.

Talk to people in the know too. Your doctor, the local health clinic, or your school’s sports trainer can answer many questions. Talk with your parents too.

Be Critical

Learn to spot the red flags in quack come-ons. With practice, you can start to spot the scams.

* Bogus Breakthroughs. One Internet supplement ad promised “an entirely new way to rid yourself of those unwanted pounds!” With no diets, no exercise, and no dangerous side effects, the ad touts weight losses up to 8 pounds per week.

When you see such ads, do a reality check. If there were such a thing, wouldn’t it have made headlines in the mainstream media? “The only proven way to lose weight,” says the FDA, “is either to reduce the number of calories you eat or to increase the number of calories you burn off through exercise.” Crash diets or fad diets can be dangerous or lead to “rebound” weight gain.

* Quick Fixes. Quacks know you’d love to build muscles, increase breast size, eliminate acne, or make other changes overnight without effort. That’s why ads offer incredible results in just weeks or even days. But such promises mean nothing–the product doesn’t work. Real life doesn’t offer quick fixes.

* Jumbled Jargon. Quacks often use meaningless medical jargon to lure customers. But techno-babble like “thermogenesis” doesn’t really mean anything.

Other terms disguise a product’s real nature. One “scientifically formulated” weight-loss supplement would also “cleanse your body” of “unhealthy toxins and fat.” Translation: The product could cause severe diarrhea. That’s not only painful, but also potentially dangerous.

* Tacky Testimonials. “My strength is surreal! This must be a dream.” Some quacks make up phony testimonials from “satisfied customers.” But even if this praise came from a real person, you can’t trust it. (Indeed, if fine print says results are “not typical,” does that mean most customers are not satisfied?)

Isolated anecdotes don’t prove anything. Because teen boys naturally gain weight and muscle, any growth while taking a supplement may be just a coincidence. Likewise, a girl’s breasts may get bigger because she’s maturing, not because of any enlargement product.

Wishful thinking plays a role too. In many studies, as many as one-third of the patients report feeling better, even if they only took sugar pills, or placebos. That’s why scientifically accepted treatments rely on controlled, double-blind tests done with sufficiently large population samples. Researchers need to know if a medicine performs significantly better than a placebo.

* Laundry Lists. Can one product really relieve low-back pain, soothe dry skin, awaken sleeping hair follicles, ease arthritis, and reduce the risk of heart attack? Emu oil, colloidal silver, DHEA (a hormone supplement), and Cat’s Claw (an herbal product) are just a few products promoted as miracle cure-ails. In the real world, however, no one product treats everything.


* Guaranteed! Quacks figure most customers will be too embarrassed to admit they were duped and demand their money back. Other customers may realize only too late that the Internet ad provided no real-world address or that a post office box is no longer used. What good is a money-back guarantee if no one can ever collect?

Fine Print. Some ads’ disclaimers say proper diet and exercise are needed either to lose weight or build muscle. Of course, if someone were already doing that, they probably wouldn’t need the product.

Many ads also note that their statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, and that the product is not intended to treat any disease or condition. If no one has proven that the product works or is even safe, why should you rely on an ad’s puffed-up promises?

* “All-Natural.” “Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean safe. Some herbs can have serious side effects. Others trigger allergies or interact with prescription medicines. Indeed, natural supplements often carry no warnings and have not been tested in controlled laboratory settings. Their manufacturing has been subject to less rigorous standards than those for FDA-approved drugs.

Also watch out for products with added vitamins or minerals. Too much of some elements may be toxic or cause unfortunate side effects.

* Time-tested. Folk remedies may have been around a long time, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily work. They may just reflect old superstitions.

* Goofy Gadgets and Gimmicks. One breast-enlargement “system” features a “unique patented vacuum pump” that resembles a torture chamber device. Another Web site touts hypnosis to bolster breast size.

What You Can Do

What if you’ve been burned by a bogus health care claim? Your safety comes first.

“If a teen has any kind of adverse event after taking a product, he or she should immediately contact a physician or the poison control center in the area,” says Cleland. “It’s only by collecting these adverse events that we can get a good picture of the safety profile of some of these products.” Such reporting can help the government get dangerous products off the market.

Beyond that, report the incident to your state attorney general’s office or the FTC. “To file an on-line complaint, all you need to do is go to www.ftc.gov,” says Cleland.

With quackery, as with other health issues, prevention is the best medicine. Remember that anything that sounds too good to be true can’t be for real.

Keep asking questions and become a savvy health care consumer. After all, a healthy dose of skepticism is exactly what you need to protect yourself from quacks’ hyped-up claims.

No Prescription?

“Prescription Drugs Prescribed On-line and Shipped Overnight to Your Door! No Prior Prescription Necessary!” Just fill in the on-line form, and–presto–an unknown doctor will write the prescription without any physical exam.

Some on-line pharmacies offer weight-loss drugs, antidepressants, and even addictive tranquilizers with no physical exam. Some Web sites even offer drugs that haven’t been approved for use in the United States.

If a company doesn’t care whether a real doctor has examined you, why should it care if you suffer serious side effects from a medicine? Why should it care whether products are genuine, sanitary, or even legal?

Legitimate pharmacies require a real prescription from a licensed doctor who has actually examined you. Any pharmacy that tries to sell you a different story is a prescription for trouble.

Quack Contraptions

Goofy gadgets and gimmicks have been around for ages. That’s why Bob McCoy began The Questionable Medical Device Collection, which is now at the Science Museum of Minnesota. The McGregor Rejuvenator promised to make people younger. The Phrenology Machine supposedly diagnosed personality from bumps on the head. The Normalizer shook people’s backsides to make them lose weight. The Stimulator’s electric shock supposedly made hair grow. Yes, these sound silly. Yet people still let themselves get conned by quacks.


Students will be able to recognize common techniques used to manipulate consumer thinking regarding health care products. Students will be able to make comparisons of products by examining ads.


* What is meant by the term quackery? (Quackery is the promotion of unproven products and treatments without a scientifically accepted basis. It can include outright lies or sincere but misinformed and mistaken practices.)

* How can nutritional supplements be especially easy for a company to promote–whether they work or not? (Dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and therefore manufacturers do not have to prove that they are safe and effective.)

* Is it reasonable for the consumer to feel assured that products are effective as advertised? (Government agencies scrutinize advertisements for false and misleading marketing of products. However, freedom of the press actually protects many advertisements for questionable products from censorship. Not all products can be screened, so the consumer must always beware.)

* Explain why quackery sells as well as it does. (Naive consumers may accept what they read, hear, or see in the media without questioning it. They may feel that they are so intelligent or well-informed that they cannot be duped by an ad. Some consumers may choose a product because it is outside the mainstream of medical therapies, fashionable, or simply unconventional. People with self-image problems and/or certain diseases may be more vulnerable to advertising claims.)

* How can a person’s decision to use quack products and services cause harm? (Quackery wastes consumers’ money, delays pursuit of more reliable approaches to their disease or problem, and/or may cause harmful side effects.)


1. Discuss and list with your class examples of mind-sets of consumers (“If it’s ‘natural,’ it must be safe.”) and individual health or psychological situations in which they might be easily convinced by fraudulent ads. The article will provide some answers, but students may offer examples from their own experience.

2. Have students complete a detailed critique of an ad for a nutritional supplement, weight-loss product, or other “questionable” product, and compare the ad to one for an FDA-approved drug such as Advil or Tylenol.


* The National Council Against Health Fraud is a nonprofit, tax-exempt voluntary health agency that focuses its attention upon health fraud, misinformation, and quackery as public health problems. Read about it at www.ncahf.org.

* An excellent article was published in the November-December 1999 issue of the FDA Consumer magazine (Vol. 33, No. 6). It is titled “How to Spot Health Fraud” by Paula Kurtzweil. This and other quality, reader-friendly materials can be found on-line at www.fda.gov/fdac or by subscribing at the same Web site.

* The Federal Trade Commission Web site offers many avenues for researching consumer fraud, at www.ftc.gov. Readers can click on For Consumers for tips on a variety of topics. The “Do Not Call” registry is featured, as well as spam E-mail. The following Web page brings you a list of articles under Operation Cure-All (www.ftc.gov/bcp/ conline/edcams/cureall/coninfo.htm).


Federal Trade Commission


Food and Drug Administration



www.Quackwatch. org