You’re probably familiar with the old “snake oil salesmen”—charlatans who traveled from town to town, peddling fancy bottles of “miracle potions” guaranteed to cure a wide variety of ailments. We now know that most of those “secret formulas” were no more than colored water mixed with other useless—or even dangerous—ingredients. Or perhaps the bottle was mostly full of alcohol, making it more attractive during the Prohibition era, and giving rise to jests such as “Grandma is a teetotaler but she sure gets a lot of good out of Dr. McGillicuddy’s Good Mood Elixir!”
The snake oil industry is alive and well today, but these disreputable companies no longer hawk their wares from the back of a wagon. Today, they tout their “miracle cures” on late-night TV infomercials, in magazine ads, on Facebook and in spam emails. They often target older adults. And while their sales pitches may be glitzier than in yesteryear, many of the fraudulent health claims they make have changed very little. They lead consumers to believe their products are scientifically tested and endorsed by reputable medical science.
Just as in the past, these scam artists keep moving to avoid persecution. Even though their claims may be illegal, it’s hard for officials to keep up with the proliferation. Said Gary Coody of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “Health fraud is a pervasive problem, especially when scammers sell online. It’s difficult to track down the responsible parties. When we do find them and tell them their products are illegal, some will shut down their website. Unfortunately, however, these same products may reappear later on a different website, sometimes with a different name.”
This means that it’s up to consumers to educate themselves about fraudulent health products. Learn the facts, and share the information with senior loved ones. The FDA provides the following list of six “red flag” claims that should raise your suspicion:
- One product does it all. Be suspicious of products that claim to cure a wide range of diseases. For example, a New York firm claimed its products marketed as dietary supplements could treat or cure dementia, brain atrophy, atherosclerosis, kidney dysfunction, gangrene, depression, osteoarthritis, as well as lung, cervical and prostate cancer.
- Personal testimonials. Success stories such as, “It cured my diabetes” or “My tumors are gone,” are easy to make up and are not a substitute for scientific evidence.
- Quick fixes. Few diseases or conditions can be treated quickly, even with legitimate products. Beware of language such as “Lose 30 pounds in 30 days” or “eliminates skin cancer in days.”
- “All natural.” Some plants found in nature (such as poisonous mushrooms) can kill when consumed. Moreover, the FDA has found numerous products promoted as “all natural” that actually contain hidden and dangerously high doses of prescription drug ingredients or even untested active artificial ingredients.
- “Miracle cure.” Alarms should go off when you see this claim or others like it such as, “new discovery,” “scientific breakthrough” or “secret ingredient.” If a real cure for a serious disease were discovered, it would be widely reported through the media and prescribed by health professionals—not buried in print ads, TV infomercials or on Internet sites.
- Conspiracy theories. Claims like “The pharmaceutical industry and the government are working together to hide information about a miracle cure” are always untrue and unfounded. These statements are used to distract consumers from the obvious, common-sense questions about the so-called miracle cure.
Bottom line, says the FDA, if you are unsure about the safety and effectiveness of a health product, ask your doctor or another reputable healthcare professional first.