December 10, 1999
How to Spot Health Fraud
by Paula Kurtzweil
You don't have to look far to find a health
product that's totally bogus--or a consumer who's totally unsuspecting. Promotions for
fraudulent products show up daily in newspaper and magazine ads and TV
"infomercials." They accompany products sold in stores, on the Internet, and
through mail-order catalogs. They're passed along by word-of-mouth.
And consumers respond, spending billions of
dollars a year on fraudulent health products, according to Stephen Barrett, M.D., head of
Quackwatch Inc., a nonprofit corporation that combats health fraud. Hoping to find a cure
for what ails them, improve their well-being, or just look better, consumers often fall
victim to products and devices that do nothing more than cheat them out of their money,
steer them away from useful, proven treatments, and possibly do more bodily harm than
"There's a lot of money to be made,"
says Bob Gatling, director of the program operations staff in the Food and Drug
Administration's Center for Devices and Radiological Health. "People want to believe
there's something that can cure them."
FDA describes health fraud as "articles of
unproven effectiveness that are promoted to improve health, well being or
appearance." The articles can be drugs, devices, foods, or cosmetics for human or
FDA shares federal oversight of health fraud
products with the Federal Trade Commission. FDA regulates safety, manufacturing and
product labeling, including claims in labeling, such as package inserts and accompanying
literature. FTC regulates advertising of these products.
Because of limited resources, says Joel Aronson,
team leader for the nontraditional drug compliance team in FDA's Center for Drug
Evaluation and Research, the agency's regulation of health fraud products is based on a
priority system that depends on whether a fraudulent product poses a direct or indirect
When the use of a fraudulent product results in
injuries or adverse reactions, it's a direct risk. When the product itself does not cause
harm but its use may keep someone away from proven, sometimes essential, medical
treatment, the risk is indirect. For example, a fraudulent product touted as a cure for
diabetes might lead someone to delay or discontinue insulin injections or other proven
While FDA remains vigilant against health fraud,
many fraudulent products may escape regulatory scrutiny, maintaining their hold in the
marketplace for some time to lure increasing numbers of consumers into their web of
How can you avoid being scammed by a worthless
product? Though health fraud marketers have become more sophisticated about selling their
products, Aronson says, these charlatans often use the same old phrases and gimmicks to
gain consumers' attention--and trust. You can protect yourself by learning some of their
The following products typify three fraudulent
products whose claims prompted FDA to issue warning letters to the products' marketers,
notifying them that their products violated federal law. Two of the products also were
added to FDA's import alert list of unapproved new drugs promoted in the United States.
Products under import alert are barred from entry onto the U.S. market.
Take a look at these products' promotions. They
are rife with the kind of red flags to look out for when deciding whether to try a health
product unknown to you.
To Rip-Off's - Examples from the FDA.
Product # 1 - Pure Emu Oil
Product # 2 - OTC Trans dermal weight-loss patch
Product # 3 - Unapproved weight-loss product marketed as an alternative to a
prescription drug combination
Truth or Dare
The underlying rule when deciding whether a
product is authentic or not is to ask yourself: "Does it sound too good to be
true?" If it does, it probably isn't true.
If you're still not sure, check it out: "Look
into it--before you put it in your body or on your skin," says Reynaldo Rodriguez, a
compliance officer and health fraud coordinator for FDA's Dallas district office.
To check a product out, FDA health fraud
- Talk to a doctor or another health professional.
"If it's an unproven or little-known treatment, always get a second opinion from a
medical specialist," Rodriguez says.
- Talk to family members and friends. Legitimate
medical practitioners should not discourage you from discussing medical treatments with
others. Be wary of treatments offered by people who tell you to avoid talking to others
because "it's a secret treatment or cure."
- Check with the Better Business Bureau or local
attorneys generals' offices to see whether other consumers have lodged complaints about
the product or the product's marketer.
- Check with the appropriate health professional
group--for example, the American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, or the
National Arthritis Foundation if the products are promoted for heart disease, diabetes or
arthritis. Many of these groups have local chapters that can provide you with various
resource materials about your disease.
- Contact the FDA office closest to you. Look for the
number and address in the blue pages of the phone book under U.S. Government, Health and
Human Services, or go to
on the FDA Website. FDA can tell you whether the agency has taken action against the
product or its marketer. Your call also may alert FDA to a potentially illegal product and
prevent others from falling victim to health fraud.
Paula Kurtzweil is a member of FDA's public
Safety Alerts compiles comprehensive safety recall information for
the United States. SafeMail is a free email service to warn consumers of faulty products
and contaminated foods. For complete information regarding current recalls, past recalls
and timely product warning notification visit: www.safetyalerts.com.
Top of Page
(To return - Click Back On Your Browser)