People with cancer, especially the more intractable varieties, are often desperate. And where there are desperate patients, fraudsters will follow. The Food and Drug Administration yesterday warned 25 companies and individuals, which collectively market 125 products, to stop advertising them as cancer "cures," since there's no evidence that they can cure, prevent, or treat the disease.
The products aren't necessarily new. For example, hucksters have been peddling shark cartilage and coral calcium as cure-alls for years. (The Federal Trade Commission nailed Kevin Trudeau in 2004 for promoting coral calcium and banned him from infomercials; he shifted his marketing efforts to books.) But the Internet makes it easy to market and distribute this stuff. And the problem isn't likely to go away. There's no guarantee that a company won't just close down and set up business under another name.
So despite government efforts, the burden will largely rest on consumers. How can you tell when a claim is fraudulent? The FDA offers this list of warning signs:
- 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.
Other resources are also available. Quackwatch has amassed a lot of information on questionable cancer therapies. And the Canadian government earlier this year launched Project False Hope, which aims to reduce cancer-related online health fraud. Two nifty elements: an interactive feature that dissects a (fake) website to show what tactics scammers use, and a health fraud awareness quiz. Lastly, there's the low-tech approach: Run products by your doctor to vet the marketing claims before you buy or use them.