Junkfood Science: Arming yourself against fake cancer remedies

June 18, 2008

Arming yourself against fake cancer remedies

The internet is filled with people eager to take advantage of others when they’re the most vulnerable, scared and desperate. Products, foods and supplements claiming to prevent, cure or treat cancer have flourished for years, but especially on the internet. The Food and Drug Administration has just issued warning letters for 125 fake cancer "cures" being marketed on the internet.

“Health fraud has been around for years, and it is a cruel form of greed,” David Elder, director of FDA's Office of Enforcement in the Office of Regulatory Affairs, said during a morning teleconference Tuesday. “Fraud involving cancer treatments can be especially heartbreaking.”

The FDA is not only warning the public of how these fraudulent products and claims can harm them, but also trying to arm them so that they won’t become victims and get taken advantage of.

“Anyone who suffers from cancer, or knows someone who does, understands the fear and desperation that can set in,” said Gary Coody, R.Ph., the National Health Fraud Coordinator and a Consumer Safety Officer with the FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs. “There can be a great temptation to jump at anything that appears to offer a chance for a cure.” Some cause direct harm, such as black salves that burn off layers of skin and have left terrible scares. But even those that may seem harmless can indirectly hurt people by delaying or intercepting their receiving proven treatments, he cautioned. “Some products may interact with your medicines or keep them from working the way they are supposed to,” he added.

Fraudulent products, according to the FDA, are those that are not approved, have usually never been clinically tested or reviewed by FDA for safety and effectiveness for the health claim. Selling such products is against federal law, he said, but that doesn’t stop countless companies from marketing them, anyway. The FTC, which regulates fraudulent marketing claims, has joined the FDA in a new initiative to try and help prevent these deceptive products from reaching people, and together, they’ve sent out about 135 warning letters and two advisories to online companies.

To better understand some of the claims and marketing tactics, along with the reasons why they are fraudulent, you can read the actual letters here. And the list of all 125 of the fake products for cancer and their companies is here. The products range from omega-3 fatty acid and fish oils, to teas, coral calcium and shark cartilage, mushrooms, vitamins, herbs to fruit and vegetable extracts.

But these efforts are only going to some of the most extreme examples and they can’t begin to chase after them all. Consumers also need to understand how to recognize health fraud to protect themselves. So, here are some resources to help you protect yourself and your loved ones.

The FDA’s news webpage, “Beware of Online Cancer Fraud,” lists some of the most obvious signs of health fraud:

· Statements that the product is a quick and effective cure-all or a diagnostic tool for a wide variety of ailments.

· Suggestions that a product can treat or cure serious or incurable diseases.

· Claims such as "scientific breakthrough," "miraculous cure," "secret ingredient," and "ancient remedy."

· Impressive-sounding terms, such as "hunger stimulation point" and "thermogenesis" for a weight loss product.

· Claims that the product is safe because it is "natural."

· Undocumented case histories or personal testimonials by consumers or doctors claiming amazing results.

· Claims of limited availability and advance payment requirements.

· Promises of no-risk, money-back guarantees.

· Promises of an "easy" fix for problems like excess weight, hair loss, or impotency.

Canada also recently launched a website, Project False Hope, with helpful information on fraudulent cancer and marketing practices.

One of the most detailed and helpful resources on questionable cancer therapies was the compilation from cancer research by doctors Stephen Barrett, M.D., and Victor Herbert, M.D., JD, at Quackwatch.

The lifestyle practices, tests and interventions for preventing, diagnosing and treating cancer that were carefully reviewed by scientists and clinicians and found to have no real evidence of any value, were listed. In evaluating a cancer modality, doctors ask if it has been objectively proven in peer-reviewed scientific literature to be effective, if it has been shown to offer potential benefits that outweigh the harms; and if the clinical studies had been appropriately conducted to answer those questions (if they’ve been fair tests).

Unproven claims go far beyond the wackiest stuff that may appear obvious, or the use of testimonials and anecdotal claims. Consumers need to be just as cautious of “emerging” research or citations of research studies. Not all studies are equal, nor does an impressive list of references from published medical or science journals mean they are actually related to the claims being made. Research that does not support that a remedy has proven effective in randomized, clinical controlled trials and shown to offer possible benefit that exceed the risks; results that have been replicated by other independent researchers; is biologically plausible and supported in a credible body of evidence; is not information you can use. If there really is some special diet, supplement or product that prevents or cures cancers, you would have heard about it from mainstream medicine.

The Quackwatch article describes the typical ways that cancer research claims can mislead you into believing their remedies work. For example, the patients were never actually clinically diagnosed with cancer to begin with; the patient received mainstream cancer treatment but the benefits attributed to some questionable curative; the cancer cure is falsely claimed; patients who die are “lost in follow-up” and not included in the research results; and natural spontaneous remissions are claimed as a cure. The article goes to detail examples of alternative methods and the research that had been claimed to show that their treatments worked, as well as why they proved fraudulent.

The extensive list of bogus cures, therapies, herbs, health foods, diets, and devices that have been sold to unsuspecting consumers over the years as preventing or curing cancer, most which still appear in various renditions today, are especially invaluable for arming you against health fraud.

© 2008 Sandy Szwarc

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