Miracle Health Claims: Add 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
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
For more information about cancer treatments, contact the American
Cancer Society; thenearest 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
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
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 at 1-800-283-7800
Assessing Claims for Dietary Supplements
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
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 Claims
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 mayreduce the risk of
neural tube defect-affected pregnancies," and "Calcium
may reduce the risk ofthe
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 prevent disease."
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
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
To ensure the safe use of any healthcare product, read the labels
and package inserts, follow product directions and check with
your healthcare professional.
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 revolutionaryinnovation
formulated by using proven principles of natural health-based
- Text that uses impressive-sounding terms like these for a
weight-loss product: "hunger stimulation point" and
- 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 again."
- Limited availability and advance payment requirements. For
example: "Hurry. This offer will not last. Send us a check
now to reserve your supply."
- 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."
Avoiding Unscrupulous Dealers
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
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
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 Problem
To report a health product that you believe is being advertised
- 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 telephone book.
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
Federal Trade Commission