Top Health Frauds

This information was compiled by the FDA in 1989. Some categories were selected because they posed serious harm, whereas others were chosen because they fool large numbers of people. Dr. Barrett updated the section on baldness remedies in 1999.

Fraudulent Arthritis Products

Arthritis affects some 40 million Americans, 95% of whom "are likely to engage in some form of self-treatment even after they have seen a physician," says the National Council Against Health Fraud's president, William Jarvis. Copper bracelets, Chinese herbal remedies, large doses of vitamins, snake or bee venom just don't work. Because the symptoms of arthritis go into remission periodically, individuals who try these unproven remedies may associate the remedy with the remission.

Spurious Cancer Clinics

These clinics, many of them in Mexico, promise miracle cures. Treatments use unproven and ineffective substances such as Laetrile (derived from apricot kernels) and vitamins and minerals. People who go to these clinics often abandon legitimate cancer treatments. This is particularly tragic in the case of young children because some of their cancers (such as leukemia or Hodgkin's disease) are highly curable through legitimate treatment.

Bogus AIDS Cures

Victims of incurable diseases are especially vulnerable to the promises of charlatans. AIDS is a prime example. Underground or "guerrilla clinics" offering homemade treatments have sprung up in the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe.

Instant Weight-Loss Schemes

With an estimated 25% of the American population overweight, quacks selling weight-loss gimmicks have a sizable market for their wares. Unfortunately, there is no quick way to lose weight. According to National Council Against Health Fraud's Jarvis, fraudulent weight-loss schemes are usually heralded by full-page newspaper ads promising rapid, dramatic and easy weight loss or by single news column ads that look like news stories except that the word "advertisement" is written across the top. Radio and TV ads typically list 800 telephone numbers to facilitate credit card charges and private parcel deliveries. This allows promoters to circumvent the postal service's laws against mail fraud, Jarvis says. Some of the latest gimmicks in instant weight-loss plans have included skin patches, herbal capsules, grapefruit diet pills, and Chinese magic weight-loss earrings.

Fraudulent Sexual Aids.

Products promoted to enhance libido and sexual pleasure are not new. FDA officials recently cracked down on an entrepreneur selling Chinese "Crocodile Penis Pills" purportedly prepared according to a 2,000-year-old formula for rejuvenating male sexual prowess.

The FDA says no nonprescription drug ingredients have been proven safe or effective as aphrodisiacs and has acted to ban these products. Over-the-counter products that claim to increase the size of a man's penis or cure impotence or frigidity don't work. Serious health risks are associated with the use of such purported aphrodisiacs as cantharides ("Spanish fly"), a chemical derived from the dried bodies of beetles. Other ingredients of similar OTC products include strychnine (a poison), mandrake and yohimbine (poisonous plants), licorice, zinc, and the herbs anise and fennel.

Although male sex hormones, available by prescription, do influence libido and sexual performance, they have potentially serious side effects and should only be used under a physician's supervision. The agency advises that people with sexual problems should not attempt to medicate themselves but rather should seek treatment by a medical professional.

Quack Baldness Remedies and Other Appearance Modifiers

Entrepreneurs make millions of dollars trying to convince consumers to buy their versions of the fountain of youth, whether it be a remedy to grow hair or prevent its loss, a cream that removes wrinkles, or a device to "develop" the bust. Two drug products have been approved for growing hair on balding men: minoxidil (Rogaine, available in both prescription and nonprescription strengths) and Propecia ( a prescription drug). And this approval is only for a specific type of baldness. FDA has acted to ban the sale of all other nonprescription hair creams, lotions, or other external product claiming to grow hair or prevent baldness. None of these products has been shown to work. So-called breast developers have also been used by millions of women who want larger breasts. But, as the experts point out, these devices do not increase breast size.

False Nutritional Schemes

Many Americans whose diets are not nutritionally balanced may be persuaded that some "perfect" food or product will make up for all their nutritional shortcomings. Various food products-- such as bee pollen, over-the-counter herbal remedies, and wheat germ capsules--are promoted as sure-fire cures for various diseases. Though usually not harmful, neither have these products been proven beneficial.

Unproven Use of Muscle Stimulators

Muscle stimulators are a legitimate medical device approved for certain conditions--to relax muscle spasms, increase blood circulation, prevent blood clots, and rehabilitate muscle function after a stroke. But within the past few years health spas and figure salons have promoted new uses. They claim that muscle stimulators can remove wrinkles, perform face lifts, reduce breast size, and remove cellulite. Some even claim these handy little devices can reduce one's beer belly without the aid of sit-ups! FDA considers promotion of muscle stimulators used for these conditions to be fraudulent.

Candidiasis Hypersensitivity

Candida (also known as monilia) is a fungus found naturally in small amounts in the warm moist areas of the body such as the mouth, intestinal tract, and vagina. When the body's resistance is weakened, the fungus can multiply and infect the skin or mucous membranes. More serious infection occurs in individuals whose resistance has been weakened by other illnesses.

However, some promoters assert that approximately 30% of Americans suffer from "candidiasis hypersensitivity," which they say triggers everything from fatigue to constipation, diarrhea, depression and anxiety, impotence, infertility, and menstrual problems. To correct the problem, promoters recommend anti-fungal drugs and vitamin and mineral supplements.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology says the existence of such a syndrome has not been proven and the numerous symptoms credited to "candidiasis hypersensitivity" could be due to any number of illnesses.

This page was revised on April 5, 1999.

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