billions of dollars on unproven, fraudulently marketed, and sometimes
useless health care products and treatments. In addition, those with
serious medical problems may be wasting valuable time before seeking
proper treatment. Worse yet, some of the products they're buying may
cause serious harm.
Poison Ivy Is Natural,
Just because a
plant or herb is "natural" or unprocessed does not
necessarily mean it's safe. Unlike prescription or over-the-counter
medicines, herbs and other food supplements do not have to undergo
review for safety or effectiveness before they are marketed. Some "natural"
products, like herbs, may have powerful pharmacological effects that
could present risks for people who take other medications or who have
specific medical conditions.
It's not hard to be taken in by a
promoter's promises, especially when successful treatments have been
elusive. But the fact is that when it come to claims for
health-related products, a healthy dose of skepticism may turn out to
be the most promising prescription.
How to Spot False Claims
Remember the first rule of
thumb for evaluating any health claim: If it sounds too good to be
true, it probably is. Also, be on the lookout for the typical phrases
and marketing techniques fraudulent promoters use to deceive
- The product is advertised as a
quick and effective cure-all for a wide range of ailments.
- The promoters use words like
scientific breakthrough, miraculous cure, exclusive product, secret
ingredient or ancient remedy.
- The text is written in "medicalese"-
impressive-sounding terminology to disguise a lack of good science.
- The promoter claims the government,
the medical profession or research scientists have conspired to
suppress the product.
- The advertisement includes
undocumented case histories claiming amazing results.
- The product is advertised as
available from only one source, and payment is required in advance.
- The promoter promises a no-risk "money-back
guarantee." Be aware that many fly-by-night operators are not
around to respond to your request for a refund.
Be wary of health care clinics that
require patients to travel - and stay - far from home for treatment.
While many clinics offer effective treatments, some prescribe
untested, unapproved, ineffective, and possibly dangerous "cures."
Moreover, physicians who work in such clinics may be unlicensed or
lack appropriate credentials. Contact state or local health
authorities where the clinic is located before you arrange an
Why Health Fraud Schemes
Health fraud is a
business that sells false hope. It preys on people who are victims of
diseases that have no medical cures, such as HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer's,
arthritis, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer.
It also thrives on the wishful thinking of those who want short-cuts
to weight loss or improvements to personal appearance. It makes
enormous profits because it promises quick cures and easy solutions to
better health or personal attractiveness.
Medical Problems That Attract Health Fraud Schemes
A diagnosis of
cancer can bring feelings of fear and hopelessness. Many people may be
tempted to turn to unproven remedies or clinics that promise a cure.
Although some cancer patients have been helped by participating in
legitimate clinical trials of experimental therapies, many others have
wasted time and money on fraudulently marketed, ineffective and even
When you are evaluating cancer-cure
claims, keep in mind that no single device, remedy or treatment is
capable of treating all types of cancer. Cancer is a name given to a
wide range of diseases that require different forms of treatment best
determined by a medical doctor.
For more information about cancer,
contact the American Cancer Society
office listed in your yellow pages. To order free publications on
cancer research and treatment, call the National Cancer Institute's
Cancer Information Service at 1-800-422-6237.
HIV and AIDS
diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, also may feel
pressured to try untested "experimental" drugs or
treatments. Although there are legitimate treatments that can extend
life and improve the quality of life for AIDS patients, there is, so
far, no cure for AIDS. Trying unproven products or treatments can be
dangerous, and may delay proper medical care. It also can be expensive
and usually, is not covered by insurance.
Don't be pressured into making an
immediate decision about trying an untested product or treatment. Ask
for time to get more information from a knowledgeable physician or
health care professional. Legitimate health care providers will not
object to your seeking additional information. The U.S. Government has
established a toll-free HIV-AIDS Treatment Information Service,
1-800-HIV-0440. This information help line is staffed by health
information specialists who are fluent in English and Spanish.
If you are
among the estimated 37 million Americans who suffer from one of the
many forms of arthritis, be aware that this disease invites a flood of
fraudulent products and services. This is because medical science has
not yet found a cure for arthritis. The Arthritis Foundation advises
that symptoms should be monitored by a doctor because the condition
can worsen if it is not properly treated.
Consumers spend an estimated two
billion dollars a year on unproven arthritis remedies. Thousands of
dietary and natural "cures" are sold for arthritis - mussel
extract, vitamin pills, desiccated liver pills, shark cartilage, and
honey and vinegar mixtures. Many supplements marketed as arthritis
remedies are not backed by adequate science to determine whether or
not they offer any relief. For a free brochure about unproven
remedies, call the Arthritis Foundation, toll-free, 1-800-283-7800
(9:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m., Eastern Time, Monday-Friday), or write:
Arthritis Foundation, P.O. Box 19000, Atlanta, Georgia, 30326.
Precautions for Taking
of dietary supplements are on the market. Many contain vitamins and
minerals to supplement the amounts of these nutrients that people get
from the food they eat. There also are many products on the market
that contain other substances like high-potency free amino acids,
botanicals, enzymes, herbs, animal extracts, and bioflavanoids.
The Food and Drug Administration's
(FDA) review of the safety and efficacy of these products is
significantly less than for drugs and other products it regulates. Be
cautious about using any supplement that claims to treat, prevent or
cure a serious disease. The FDA has approved only a few claims for
labeling, based on a review of the scientific evidence (for example,
claims about folic acid and a decreased risk of neural tube
defect-affected pregnancies). The FDA allows other disease claims on
supplement labels only if they are based on authoritative statements
from scientific organizations like the National Academy of Sciences.
Some dietary supplements have
documented benefits; the advantages of others are unproven and claims
about those products may be false or misleading. For example, claims
that you can eat all you want and lose weight effortlessly are not
true. To lose weight, you must lower your calorie intake or increase
your calorie use through exercise. Most experts recommend doing both.
Similarly, no body building product can "tone you up"
effortlessly or build muscle mass without exercise. Claims to the
contrary are false. Other questionable claims may involve products or
treatments advertised as effective in shrinking tumors, curing
insomnia, reversing hair loss, relieving stress, curing impotency,
preventing memory loss, improving eyesight, and slowing the aging
In addition to lacking documented
effectiveness, some dietary supplements may be harmful under some
conditions. For example, many herbal products and other "natural"
supplements have real and powerful pharmacological effects that could
cause adverse reactions in some consumers, or cause dangerous
interactions with other medicines. It doesn't necessarily follow that
supplements marketed as "natural" are safe and without side
effects. The FDA monitors reports of adverse reactions to dietary
supplements to identify emerging safety issues.
According to the FDA, the following
substances in dietary supplements are among those that can raise
serious safety issues: chaparral, comfrey, lobelia, germander, willow
bark, ephedra (ma huang), L-tryptophan, germanium, magnolia-stephania
preparations and dieter's teas. In addition, some vitamins and
minerals can cause problems for some people when taken in excessive
doses. Finally, a label of "natural" is no guarantee of a
product's safety or effectiveness.
If you use dietary supplements, always
read product labels to determine the percentage daily value for
various nutrients in the product. Also, it's a good idea to seek
advice from a health professional before taking dietary supplements,
particularly for children, adolescents, older people or those with
chronic illnesses, and women who are pregnant or breast-feeding.
For More Information or To
Report a Problem
determine the value of a health care product or treatment, consult a
pharmacist, doctor, or other health professional. To report a company
you believe may be making false advertising claims, contact:
- The FTC by phone, toll-free, at
1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357); TDD: 202-326-2502; by mail to Consumer
Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580; or
online at www.ftc.gov - click on Complaint Form.
- Your state Attorney General's
office, your state department of health, or local consumer
protection agency. These offices are listed in your local telephone
- To report a company for falsely
labeling its products, call your local FDA office.
- To report an adverse reaction or
illness that you think is related to the use of a supplement, call a
doctor or other healthcare provider immediately. You also may report
your reaction or illness to FDA MedWatch by calling 1-800-FDA-1088
or on the FDA web site at www.fda.gov/medwatch/report/hcp.htm.
Patients' names are confidential.
- For information about a particular
hospital, clinic, or treatment center, contact state or local health
authorities where the facility is located. If it 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.
You can file a complaint with the FTC by contacting the Consumer
Response Center by phone: toll-free 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357); TDD:
202-326-2502; by mail: Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade
Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20580; or through
the Internet, using the online
complaint form. Although the Commission cannot resolve
individual problems for consumers, it can act against a company if it
sees a pattern of possible law violations.