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Medical quackery alive and well

June 2 1997

Medical quackery can threaten both your health and pocketbook. Snake oil salesmen used to tout cures from the back of a horse-drawn wagon; now they use the Internet and sophisticated marketing ploys. But it's still the same: Use people's fears to "make a killing" sometimes literally selling worthless medical treatments. Learn how you can avoid falling prey.

What is medical quackery?

Medical quackery is difficult to define. It's typically a medical scheme or remedy that is known to be false or unproven and sold for a profit. It may involve drugs, devices or lifestyle changes.

Some promoters of quackery are sincere they fully believe in what they are doing but are misguided nonetheless. Others are cynical manipulators out for a fast profit or personal fame. Quacks may hold respected credentials (even though they have abandoned the rigorous standards of their fields) or they may have bogus degrees from mail-order "diploma mills."

William London, director of public health for the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), is concerned that the World Wide Web is making it easier to promote worthless products to an even larger audience. Some reputable medical Web sites have "alternative" medicine categories, which London says too often contain links to questionable health products and services. He further cautions Web users to be wary of claims based on personal testimonials.

The language of quackery

How can you tell if a treatment or method is worthless? Watch out for promotions that describe medical treatments with adjectives such as "secret," "proven," "miracle," "foreign," "breakthrough," and "overnight." Many quacks claim they are fighting against a conspiracy of physicians who are unwilling to acknowledge new treatments. They may claim their products provide a complete cure for a wide variety of problems without any side effects. Serious conditions are often targeted, including obesity, cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and arthritis. Quacks also may purport to have products that promote longevity and the idea of "super" health or immunity.

Stephen Barrett, M.D., an expert on medical quackery and author of several books on the subject, warns about the following:

Barrett notes that the current surge of interest in "alternative medicine" by the media and the public has "legitimatized" some quack treatments. John Renner, M.D., of the National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF) agrees. He says it's becoming more difficult for potential victims to separate science fiction from science. He divides treatments into five groups:

Renner says when consumers are unsure about a treatment, they should ask a physician, pharmacist, or registered dietitian for advice and seek independent opinions from responsible health organizations or consumer groups. (Be wary of consumer groups crusading for a cause versus those offering objective health information.)

Quackery poses many problems

Whatever the claims, quackery poses genuine threats.

Who is vulnerable?

No one is immune to quackery, regardless of education level. People who purchase fraudulent products often have similar characteristics:

What makes it 'work'?

Quackery thrives on vulnerability. In some areas of life, we are all vulnerable. You may be so anxious that hope overwhelms reason. Or you may be simply unsuspecting and be enticed by catchy advertising and convincing personal testimonials.

There are two main reasons why a quack product may seem to "work":

Thwarting quackery

Quack products come on the market with dizzying frequency and variety. You can help avoid them with common sense. If you feel you've been "quacked," see Where to report medical quackery:

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