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Miracle Cure? Don't Be So Sure!

Reprinted from PN January 2012

If a product or service sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The FDA offers a new Internet resource to help consumers protect themselves from bogus health products.

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The science of public health was still in its infancy in the 19th and early 20th centuries when early incarnations of the modern Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tried to protect consumers from “snake oil salesmen” and other shifty characters who swindled the sick and gullible.

FDA is still on the case—more than a century later. The agency has created a new Internet resource to help consumers recognize and protect themselves from the 21st century versions of bogus health products. The Health Fraud Scams website (fda.gov/healthfraud) pulls together videos and articles on how to avoid fraudulent schemes and offers information about products that have been seized, recalled or are the subject of warnings from the agency.

The site also provides links to government resources on health fraud involving FDA-regulated products, such as drugs, dietary supplements, tobacco products, alternative medicines, medical devices, and cosmetics.

Gary Coody, RPh, national health fraud coordinator at FDA, calls the site “one-stop shopping” for people who want to learn how to recognize and avoid health fraud scams. Anyone can search the site to see if FDA has taken an action against a product or company. However, just because a product is not listed does not mean it is legally marketed or safe to use.

Equal Opportunity Fraud

Consumers spend a fortune on products that “are either worthless or may cause harm,” says Coody. “Consumers can buy very dangerous products on the Internet and in stores that can cause serious injury or death.”

Using one of these unproven treatments can delay getting a potentially life-saving diagnosis and medication that works,
he says.

The schemes can take many forms. “Some products billed as “all natural” in fact have prescription drugs and other chemicals not listed on the label that could be dangerous,” Coody says. The most common categories of these tainted products include weight loss, sexual performance, and bodybuilding.

Other products claim to be a cure-all for such serious chronic diseases as cancer, arthritis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and multiple sclerosis (MS). Consumers of all ages are taken in by fraudulent products, says Coody, adding, “Everyone is vulnerable.”

FDA’s Roots

Rampant health fraud was a significant reason for passage of the 1906 Food and Drugs Act, says FDA historian John P. Swann, PhD. “So-called ‘patent’ medicines, with their outrageous claims and unlabeled, often harmful ingredients had been a mainstay of the American medical landscape throughout the 19th century (and before),” he says.

“Examples abound, from alleged rapid cures for serious diseases like cancer, tuberculosis and syphilis, to remedies with harmful and dangerous ingredients, such as addiction cures that included the unlabeled ingredient that was the source of the addiction,” says Swann.

The 1906 law prohibited the marketing of adulterated and misbranded drugs and required labeling of a few ingredients, including alcohol, opium, morphine, heroin, and cocaine.

More than 30 years later, the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act gave FDA (named the Food and Drug Administration in 1931) new power to regulate medical devices. The agency was then able to act against the “Countless gadgets that could deflect the attention of consumers from seeking established therapies,” Swann says.

The Difference Today

Health fraud is more pervasive today, says Coody, because “The Internet has opened up the world market to people from their personal computers.” If you’re tempted to purchase any unproven or little known treatment, especially if it’s sold on the Internet, check with your doctor or healthcare professional first, he advises.

Shady products are also peddled by TV infomercials, radio, direct mail, word-of-mouth marketing and ads in newspapers and magazines.

“There are many ways that consumers are getting these messages, and they should view these ads with a healthy dose of skepticism,” says Coody.

Source: FDA Consumer Health Information, fda.gov/consumer.

 

SIDEBAR

 Red Flags for Fraud

 

-  Cure all! For unrelated diseases

-  Quick fix! Within days

-  Ancient remedy! Or a secret formula

-  Revolutionary! Or new science

-  Amazing results! Difficult to verify

-  My tumor shrunk! Unproven testimonials

-  Act now! Limited availability

-  Lose weight! No diet or exercise

-  Money-back guarantee!

 

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Miracle Cure? Don't Be So Sure!

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