No substitute for the real thing
With all the political and economic news, many people probably missed this summer's warning from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) about fraudulent cancer treatments.
The FDA notified two dozen companies that they should stop claiming Tumorex, Immune Ace, Ellagic Insurance Formula, PC Hope, Breast Cancer Tea Formula and a bunch of other products work as anti-cancer drugs. These things may still be sold as dietary supplements, but their makers were told to drop the anti-cancer claims or their products might be seized and they could face criminal charges.
The warning concerned 127 products from flaxseed oil to skin salves made from bloodroot. Many of them are made by home-based companies and sold over the internet, that marvelous tool that equalizes good and bad information, becoming a 21st century home for quacks.
Of course, there's nothing new in fraudulent claims. We just finished Charlatan, a great book by Pope Brock about the career of Dr. John R. Brinkley. In the 1920s, Brinkley made a fortune selling gullible Midwesterners on the notion that goat glands would bring back their youthful stamina and cure their ills. He promoted his practices on his own high-powered radio station in a day when there was little competition for the airways.
Then, as now, unproven medications and methods could burn you twice. Since quack medicines and therapies don't help, the longer you play around with them, the longer you put off real treatment.
And, there's the real chance that some of these alternatives will harm you. Brinkley's surgeries crippled and killed so many people that he lost his medical license and went bankrupt from the lawsuits. Unfortunately, his damage had already been done.
And, just because a remedy is billed as natural or herbal doesn't mean you won't have a reaction or that you should be taking large amounts of a substance.
For instance, a recent survey of 200 Ayurvedic herbal remedies showed that 20% of them have dangerous levels of mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic metals. About 750,000 Americans now follow Ayurveda, an ancient Indian system of medical treatment.
We suspect much of the appeal of such over-the-counter products is that a growing number of people can't afford doctors and hospitals, so they're willing to try any alternative. Unfortunately, they may end up paying with their lives.