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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 good.

"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 animal use.

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 risk.

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 treatments.

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 deceit.

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 techniques.

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.

Tip-Off's 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 coordinators suggest:

  • 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 affairs staff.

Selected Recent Recalls

Health Professional:

Did you know?
During 2000 there were over
1050 products recalled in the United
States for safety reasons!

How many did you hear about?

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