a Dose of Skepticism
Whether they're looking for a short
cut to losing weight or a cure for a serious ailment,
consumers may be spending billions of dollars a year on unproven,
fraudulently marketed, often useless health-related
products, devices and treatments. Why? Because health fraud trades
on false hope. It promises quick cures
and easy solutions to a variety of problems, from obesity to
cancer and AIDS. But consumers who fall for fraudulent
"cure-all" products don't find help or
better health. Instead, they find themselves cheated
out of their money, their time, and maybe even
their health. Fraudulently marketed health products can keep people
from seeking and getting treatment
from their own healthcare professional. Some products can cause serious
harm, and many are expensive because
health insurance rarely covers unapproved treatments.
To avoid becoming victims of health fraud,
it's important for consumers to learn how to assess health claims
and seek the advice of a health professional.
Common Health Fraud Targets
Officials at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) say health fraud promoters often target
people who are overweight or have serious conditions for which there
are no cures, including multiple sclerosis, diabetes, Alzheimer's
disease, cancer, HIV and AIDS, and arthritis.
A diagnosis of cancer can bring feelings of fear and hopelessness.
Many people may be tempted to turn to unproven remedies promoted as
cancer cures. But they and their loved ones should be skeptical of
"miracle" claims because no single device, remedy or treatment
can treat all types of cancer. Cancer is a name given to a wide range
of diseases; each requires different forms of treatment
that are best determined with the advice of a health professional.
Cancer patients who want to try an experimental treatment should
enroll in a legitimate clinical study. The FDA reviews clinical study
designs to help ensure that patients are not subjected to unreasonable
For more information about cancer treatments, contact the American
Cancer Society; the nearest local chapter
will be listed in the yellow pages of your phone book. For free
publications on cancer research and treatment, call the National
Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237)
HIV and AIDS
Although legitimate treatments can extend life and improve the
quality of life for people with AIDS, there is, so far, no cure for
the disease. People diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS,
may want to try untested drugs or treatments. But trying unproven
products or treatments, such as electrical and magnetic devices and
so-called herbal cures, can be dangerous and may cause HIV-positive
individuals to delay seeking medical care.
An example is the herb St. John's Wort, which has been promoted as
a safe treatment for HIV. There is no evidence that this herb is effective
in treating HIV, and in fact, studies have shown that it interferes
with medicines prescribed for HIV.
People who think they may be HIV-positive may turn to home test kits.
But claims for these products may be misleading and possibly harmful.
Safe, reliable HIV testing can be done only through a medical professional
or a clinic, or through the Home Access Express HIV-1 Test System;
it is the only system approved for home use by the FDA.
The U.S. government has a toll-free HIV-AIDS Treatment Information
Service, 1-800-HIV-0440 (1-800-448-0440), which is staffed by English-
and Spanish-speaking health information specialists.
Consumers spend an estimated $2 billion a year on unproven arthritis
remedies - thousands of dietary and so-called natural cures, like
mussel extract, desiccated liver pills, shark cartilage, CMO (cetylmyristoleate),
honey and vinegar mixtures, and magnets and copper bracelets. But
these remedies are not backed by adequate science to show that they
offer long-term relief. For current, accurate information on arthritis
treatments and alternative therapies, call the Arthritis Foundation
Assessing Claims for
The array of dietary supplements - vitamins and minerals, amino acids,
enzymes, herbs, animal extracts and others - has grown tremendously
over the years. Although the benefits of some of these products have
been documented, the advantages of others are unproven.
For example, claims that a supplement allows you to eat all you want
and lose weight effortlessly are false.
To lose weight, you must lower your calorie intake or burn more calories
- for example, by increasing exercise. Most
medical experts recommend doing both.
Similarly, no supplement can cure arthritis or cancer in five days.
Such claims are false. Consumers should be wary of any claims for
a dietary supplement that say it can shrink tumors, cure insomnia,
cure impotency, treat Alzheimer's disease, or prevent severe memory
loss. These kinds of claims deal with the
treatment of diseases, and companies that want to make such claims
must follow the FDA's pre-market testing and review process required
for new drugs.
FDA Regulation of Health
Federal law allows for certain claims to be made in the
labeling of food and supplements. These include claims approved
by the Food and Drug Administration that show a strong link,
based on scientific evidence, between a food substance and
a disease or health condition. These approved claims can
state only that a food substance reduces the risk of
certain health problems - not that it can treat or cure
a disease. Two examples of approved claims are: "The
vitamin folic acid may reduce
the risk of neural tube defect-affected pregnancies,"
and "Calcium may reduce the risk of
the bone disease osteoporosis."
Dietary supplements also may carry claims in their labeling
that describe the effect of a substance
in maintaining the body's normal structure or function,
as long as the claims don't imply the
product treats or cures a disease. The FDA does not
review or authorize these claims. An
example of such a claim is, "Product B promotes
healthy joints and bones." When a dietary
supplement is promoted with a claim like this, the
claim must be accompanied with the disclaimer, "This
statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or
Prescription drugs must undergo clinical testing and receive the
FDA's full review for safety and effectiveness before they are sold.
Over-the-counter medicines are subject to the OTC drug review process,
which determines safety and effectiveness of the products. Dietary
supplements are not required to undergo government testing or review
before they are marketed. Yet, supplements may have drug-like effects
that could present risks for people on certain medicines or with certain
medical conditions. This is true, even if the product is marketed
as "natural." For example, St. John's Wort can have potentially
dangerous interactions with a number of prescription drugs, including
anticoagulants, oral contraceptives, antidepressants, antiseizure
medicines, drugs for HIV, and drugs to prevent transplant rejection.
If you take a prescription medicine, always consult your healthcare
professional before starting a dietary supplement.
Some dietary supplement substances require further scrutiny and study
before they can be considered safe for all people. Though many supplements
have a history of use, that history does
not necessarily guarantee safety in every circumstance.
Some substances for which safety concerns have been raised are comfrey,
chaparral, lobelia, germander, aristolochia, ephedra (ma huang), L-tryptophan,
germanium, magnolia-stephania and stimulant
laxative ingredients, such as those found in dieter's teas. The herb
comfrey, for example, contains certain alkaloids that can cause serious
liver damage. Consumers should not take any product containing comfrey
either orally or as a suppository and should not apply comfrey products
to broken skin.
Even some vitamins and minerals, when consumed in excessive quantities,
can cause problems. For example, high intakes of vitamin A over a
long period can reduce bone mineral density, cause birth defects and
lead to liver damage, according to the National Academy of Sciences.
To ensure the safe use of any healthcare product, read the labels
and package inserts, follow product directions and check with your
How to Spot False Claims
When evaluating health-related claims, be skeptical. If something
sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Here are some signs of
a fraudulent claim:
- Statements that the product is a quick and effective cure-all
or diagnostic tool for a wide variety of ailments. For example:
"Extremely beneficial in the treatment of rheumatism,
arthritis, infections, prostate problems, ulcers, cancer,
heart trouble, hardening of the arteries and more."
- Statements that suggest the product can treat or cure diseases.
For example: "shrinks tumors" or "cures impotency."
- Promotions that use words like "scientific breakthrough,"
"miraculous cure," "exclusive product," "secret
ingredient" or "ancient remedy." For example: "A
revolutionary innovation formulated by
using proven principles of natural health-based medical science."
- Text that uses impressive-sounding terms like these for a weight-loss
product: "hunger stimulation point" and "thermogenesis."
- Undocumented case histories or personal testimonials by consumers
or doctors claiming amazing results. For example: "My husband
has Alzheimer['s disease]. He began eating a teaspoonful of this
product each day. And now in just 22 days he mowed the grass, cleaned
out the garage, weeded the flower beds and we take our morning walk
- Limited availability and advance payment requirements. For example:
"Hurry. This offer will not last. Send us a check now to reserve
- Promises of no-risk "money-back guarantees." For example:
"If after 30 days you have not lost at least 4 pounds each
week, your uncashed check will be returned to you."
It's easy to see why some people can be taken in by promoters' promises,
especially when successful treatments have been elusive. But resist
pressure to decide "on the spot" about trying an untested
product or treatment. Ask for more information and consult a knowledgeable
doctor, pharmacist or other healthcare professional.
Promoters of legitimate healthcare products do not
object to your seeking additional information.
In addition, if you're considering a clinic that requires you to
travel and stay far from home for treatment, check it out with your
doctor. Although some clinics offer effective treatments, others prescribe
untested, unapproved, ineffective, and possibly dangerous "cures."
In addition, the healthcare providers who work in these clinics may
be unlicensed or lack other appropriate credentials.
For information about a particular hospital, clinic or treatment
center, contact the state or local health authorities where the facility
is located. If the facility is in a foreign country, contact that
government's health authority to see that the facility is properly
licensed and equipped to handle the procedures involved. For information
about facilities in Mexico, contact the Secretary of Health (Secretaria
De Salud) in the Mexican state where the facility is located.
How to Report a Potential
To report a health product that you believe is being advertised falsely,
- the FTC by phone, toll-free, at 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357);
TDD: 1-866-653-4261; by mail to Consumer Response Center, Federal
Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580; or online at www.ftc.gov.
Click on "File a Complaint Online."
- your state Attorney General's office, state department of health,
or local consumer protection agency. These offices are listed in
the blue pages of your telephone book.
To report a product that you believe is fraudulently labeled, call
your local FDA office. The number is listed in the blue pages of the
Food and Drug Administration
The FDA regulates over $1 trillion worth of products, which account
for 25 cents of every dollar spent annually by American consumers.
It is part of FDA's job to see that the food we eat is safe and wholesome
and that the medicines and medical devices we use are safe and effective.
For more information, call toll-free, 1-888-INFO-FDA (1-888-463-6332).
Federal Trade Commission