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Health Quackery



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Quacks-people who sell unproven remedies-have been around for years. You may remember the "snake oil" salesman who traveled from town to town making amazing claims about his "fabulous" product. Today's quack is only a little more slick. Sometimes only money wasted, but it can be a serious problem if quackery prevents you from seeking professional medical care.

Who Are the Victims?
To the quack, people of all ages are fair game, but older people form the largest group of victims. In fact, a Government study found that 60 percent of all victims of health care fraud are older people.

Most people who are taken in by a quack's worthless and often dangerous "treatments" are desperate for some offer of hope. Because older people as a group have more chronic illnesses than younger people, they are likely targets for fraud.

What do Quacks Promise?
Anti-Aging. The normal processes of aging are a rich territory for medical quackery. In a youth-oriented society, quacks find it easy to promote a wide variety of products. They simply say their products can stop or reverse aging processes or relieve conditions associated with old age. While there are products that may reduce wrinkles or reverse baldness for some people, these products cannot slow the body's aging process. However, not smoking, eating a healthy diet, and getting regular exercise may help prevent some diseases that occur more often as people age.

Arthritis Remedies. Arthritis "remedies" are especially easy to fall for because symptoms of arthritis tend to come and go. People with arthritis easily associate the remedy they are using with relief from symptoms. Arthritis sufferers have paid for bottled seawater, "extracts" from New Zealand green lipped mussels, and Chinese herbal medicines (which have no herbs but may contain drugs that are dangerous).

There is no cure for most forms of arthritis, but treatments that can help reduce pain and enable greater movement are available. These include drugs, heat treatments, a balance of rest and exercise, and in some cases, surgery.

Cancer Cures. Quacks prey on the older person's fear of cancer by offering "treatments" that have no proven value-for example, a diet dangerously low in protein or drugs such as Laetrile. By using unproven methods, patients may lose valuable time and the chance to receive proven, effective therapy. This can reduce the chance for controlling or curing the disease.

How To Protect Yourself
One way to protect yourself is to question carefully what you see or hear in ads. Although there are exceptions, the editors of newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV do not regularly screen their ads for truth or accuracy.

Find out about a product before you buy it. Check out products sold door to door through an agency such as the Better Business Bureau.

The following are common ploys used by dishonest promoters:

  • promising a quick or painless cure,
  • promoting a product made from a "special" or "secret" formula, usually available through the mail and from only one sponsor,
  • presenting testimonials or case histories from satisfied patients,
  • advertising a product as effective for a wide variety of ailments, or
  • claiming to have the cure for a disease (such as arthritis or cancer) that is not yet understood by medical science.

Remember if it seems "too good to be true," it probably is.

If you have questions about a product, talk to your doctor or contact one of the following agencies.

Food and Drug Administration
HFE 88
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857

The Food and Drug Administration answers questions about medical devices, medicines, and food supplements that are mislabeled, misrepresented, or in some way harmful.

U.S. Postal Service
Office of Criminal Investigation
Washington, DC 20260-2166

U.S. Postal Service monitors quack products purchased by mail.

Council of Better Business Bureaus
4200 Wilson Boulevard
8th Floor
Arlington, VA 22209

The Council of Better Business Bureaus offers publications and advice on products.

Federal Trade Commission
Room 421
6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.
Washington, DC 20580

The Federal Trade Commission looks into charges of false advertising in publications or on the radio and TV.

Cancer Information Service (CIS)

The CIS, funded by the National Cancer Institute, can answer questions about a broad range of cancer-related issues, including foods and products.

National Arthritis, Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NIAMS)
9000 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD 20892



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