Miracle Cures Can Make You Sick!

A fact sheet that explains how to avoid unproven remedies, untested medical products, unlicensed practitioners, and unfounded health claims.

Miracle Cures Can Make You Sick!

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Miracle Cures Can Make You Sick!

A fact sheet that explains how to avoid unproven remedies, untested medical products, unlicensed practitioners and unfounded health claims.

Note: Last revision 1999. Use this information as a general guide only; consult with a local consumer group for laws specific to your state.

False advertising can be bad for your health!

Each year, U.S. consumers spend millions of dollars on unproven, deceptively marketed and often useless medical treatments and consultations with "quacks"-promoters of dubious medical therapies. Some of these just waste your money, while others can damage your health and even endanger your life.

When seriously ill people turn to unproven cures, they often stop using proven treatments and their health may deteriorate further. Or they use herbs and dietary supplements that may cause harmful interactions with prescription drugs they take.

You don't have to look far to find offers for so-called "miracle cures"-in newspapers and magazines, on the Internet and flyers on phone poles. The ads promise to prevent and even cure incurable conditions-AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and multiple sclerosis. They promote instant weight loss, a better sex life or hair growth for bald men.

The bottom line is "buyer beware." Just because you see something for sale doesn't mean that it's government-approved, will do what its promoters say it will or even that its sale is legal.

Government oversight

The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees tests of medical products and treatments to determine if they are safe and effective before they can be marketed to consumers.

Prescription drug companies must successfully complete a clinical trial process regulated by the FDA before any new drug is allowed on the market. But many so-called cures-herbal preparations, patent medicines, and dietary supplements included-are not required to be tested by the FDA to see if they are safe and effective.

Licensing health professionals. Medical practitioners-including doctors, dentists, nurse practitioners, chiropractors and acupuncturists-must be licensed if they are to treat patients. To check if a medical practitioner is licensed, call the California Department of Consumer Affairs. (See the "Resources" section.)

"Alternative" treatments. This term is used to describe treatments that aren't:

  • Taught widely in U.S. medical schools,
  • Generally used in hospitals, or
  • Commonly covered by health insurers.

However, there is increasing interest by doctors and the government in alternative treatments for treating certain diseases and conditions. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) was established by the federal government to study therapies that include herbs, hypnosis, massage and exercise.

Signs of health fraud

  • Promoters of cures who claim that the medical establishment is conspiring to keep information away from consumers. Legitimate doctors don't keep proven cures and treatments away from patients who would benefit from them.
  • Testimonials from people who supposedly have been cured. These are usually made up by the promoter.
  • Easy ways to lose weight or get in shape. No "quick fix" exists-to lose weight or get in shape you have to eat less and exercise more.
  • "Secret formulas." If a drug or treatment has been proven effective for certain diseases, it is widely available to the public, not to just a select few.
  • The use of "infomercials" - TV programs that look like news, but are just lengthy ads paid for by the promoter.

Miracle cures

HIV infection and AIDS. There is no known cure-only treatments-for HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), the infection that causes AIDS. The drugs approved to treat HIV and prevent or postpone AIDS are only available under a licensed physician's supervision.

Vitamins, herbal preparations and dietary supplements. Manufacturers are allowed to make statements and claims about the role of vitamins and herbs without first having them evaluated by the FDA. The manufacturer is held responsible by the FDA for ensuring that these statements are accurate and truthful. If claims are made, product labels must note that the FDA has not evaluated them.

"Look-a-like" drugs. When new prescription drugs are approved for sale, pills and potions with similar sounding names will often crop up in the marketplace. The prescription drug fen-phen was prescribed to help people lose weight before it was found to damage the heart and was withdrawn from sale. But "herbal fen-phen" continues to be sold to the public, and there are concerns about its ingredient "ephedra," a powerful stimulant linked to heart attacks, strokes and death.

Medical devices. Unapproved products are often marketed in magazine ads and on paid TV programs called "infomercials," claiming to solve a range of health problems. Recently, thousands of people ordered the "Stimulator," said to alleviate joint and back pain and a host of other ailments. When the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health stepped in, it found that the product was useless.

Self-help cautions

Many people take Tylenol or aspirin for aches and pains or vitamins or herbs for colds. Even non-prescription drugs, vitamins and herbs can interact badly with some prescription drugs or alcohol. To get the best care, discuss all treatments with your doctor and check with your doctor or pharmacist before mixing medicines. If symptoms of illness or pain continue, seek your doctor's advice.

Ethnic marketing

Many of the most blatant health fraud abuses happen in ethnic communities. Claims are often made in languages other than English, making it difficult for regulators to stop new frauds. Promoters prey on recent immigrants and limited English speakers who aren't familiar with the U.S. marketplace and who may believe that any health-related product they see for sale has been proven safe and effective.

In California, all practitioners of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine must be licensed by the state and have their licenses prominently displayed in their offices. But community advocates say that many practitioners in the state's Chinese communities are not licensed.

Chinese "patent medicines" may be bad for your health. These preparations are not regulated and there is no guarantee that you will get what you pay for. These traditional Chinese medicines include tablets, pills and liquids made of herbs, plants and animal parts. California's Department of Health Services tested hundreds of them, finding that one-third contained poisons such as mercury, lead and arsenic. Environmentalists also warn that demand for medicines made of animal organs causes the killing of rare or protected animals.

In Latino areas of Los Angeles, the herb "cat's claw" (uña de gato) is falsely promoted as a cure for AIDS. In the same community, unregulated "iridologists" make unfounded claims to diagnose ailments by looking at the irises of your eyes.

Funded by California Consumer Protection Foundation

Produced by Consumer Action

Electronic publication funded by Sprint

For more information

If you have a complaint about a health product that is mislabeled or misrepresented, or is harmful, report it to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

FDA-Consumer Affairs/Information
5600 Fishers Lane, HFC-110
Rockville, MD 20857

Report adverse reactions or illnesses related to the use of a dietary supplements to the FDA's Medwatch program.

(800) FDA-1088

False and deceptive advertising violates Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations.

(800) FTC-HELP

The California Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) is responsible for licensing health care professionals and handling medical complaints.

DCA Consumer Information Center
(800) 952-5210

The National AIDS Hotline is operated under contract with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

(800) 342-2437 (English and Spanish)

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) was established by the government to study alternative therapies.

(888) 644-6226

Published / Reviewed Date

Published: April 01, 1999

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California Consumer Protection Foundation

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Fraud/Scams   ♦  


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