Critiquing Quack Ads (1985)

Roger W. Miller

Freedom of speech doesn't give a person the right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once noted. Nor should it give con artists the right to promote health frauds through ads in print or on the air. Yet, health fraud lives and even thrives, in no small part because of successful advertising.

To get an idea of the prevalence of advertising for possibly fraudulent health items, the Food and Drug Administration contracted with a clipping service to survey the nation's newspapers and magazines for one month. The clipping service came up with a total of 435 questionable ads in publications ranging from the smallest of weekly newspapers to multimillion-circulation magazines.

The 435 ads hardly indicate the true volume of dubious advertising during that period. With more than 10,000 daily and weekly newspapers and general-circulation magazines in the country, any clipping service asked to do a nationwide search is only going to be fractionally successful. However, the clippings give a good idea of what's being peddled to the gullible, the desperate, the people looking for something-too-good-to-be-true.

FDA has been taking steps to discourage fraudulent product advertising and sales. In a joint program with the U.S. Council of Better Business Bureaus, the agency sent information packages to many of the nation's newspapers and magazines and to all radio and TV stations. The material gave tips on how to spot quack ads and offered the services of local FDA and BBB offices to answer questions about the suitability of advertising copy submitted for publication.

In addition, FDA has launched a sort of advertising program of its own. A section called "Health Fraud Notices" has been added to the agency's weekly Enforcement Report. The report, a subscription publication made available to the media, lists product recalls, seizures, and other regulatory actions. Now it is being used to warn consumers of current fraudulent products. The first Health Fraud Notice, in the Dec. 12 issue of the publication, labeled as "gross deceptions" waist wraps, vibrating belts and sauna suits advertised to help lose weight. The Enforcement Report named the products and the marketers. They are: Shrink Wrap System, Cell-U-Loss Body Toner, and Space Suit Slenderizing Systems, all marketed by three firms: Maximum Exposure Advertising Inc., Stamford, Conn.; Body Shoppe Inc., Ronkonkoma, N.Y.; and New Body Boutique Inc., Bohemia, N.Y. Also named was the Touch-and-Stay-Trimmer by J.M. Devrey Inc., Freeport, N.Y.

There is no scientific or clinical evidence to support the use of body wraps or sauna suits for controlling weight. Nor is there any data to back up promoters' claims that these products will eliminate cellulite and bulging fat, or make "spot reductions" possible, or improve the "calorie burn rate," or control appetite. Accordingly, there are no FDA-approved body wraps or sauna suits.

FDA had previously notified the body wrap companies that their products' labels were false and misleading and that they had failed to register or list their products with FDA as required by law. Listings in the Enforcement Report will not necessarily be the end to FDa dealings with these quacks, as the agency will still be free to use regulatory or legal actions in the cases.

Weight-loss products such as body wraps are by far the most popular items being promoted by the fraud artists, according to the clipping survey. Of the 435 ads, 249 were for weight-loss products. Diet pills accounted for most of those, with 218 ads. That figure was ballooned somewhat by a number of ads for the so-called grapefruit pill ("No dieting—eat all you want; the pill does it all—$12 for a 14 day supply"). A total of 102 grapefruit pill ads were found in publications ranging from the 4,200-circulation weekly Times in Willard, Ohio, to the 358,265-circulation Denver Post. The ads appeared at a time when the U.S. Postal Service, acting in part on information supplied by FDA, was taking action against the pill's promoters, Citrus Industries. The Postal Service sought court permission to send all of Citrus Industries' mail back to the senders, thus cutting off those $12 checks. A federal court in Los Angeles ordered the mail held until a Postal Service judicial officer decides on the value of the product. In the meantime, Citrus Industries has quit advertising the grapefruit pill.

Hair restoration schemes are next in popularity to diet hoaxes, the clippings indicate. Eighty-nine ads for hair restorers were found, 42 of them for products and 47 for "clinics." FDA has counseled consumers that no product has ever been approved as safe and effective for preventing baldness or restoring hair. Wrinkle removers were also high on the quack ad hit parade.

The clippings indicate that California, our most populous state, is the best place for a quack to advertise his bogus goods and services. Eighty-four of the ads were from publications in that state. Texas was second with 45 clippings; New York contributed 44.

There was no end to the imaginations of the promoters. One product was guaranteed to take care of hemorrhoids, varicose veins and indigestion. One of the many hypnosis plans promised to handle the urge to smoke, hypertension and overeating. Although experts say exercise is necessary for most people who want to lose weight, Dozens of hucksters are promoting diet products that let you "lose while you snooze."

There were "rear end kits" for reshaping, pills for the "ultimate orgasm," and a $19.95 product that would "add 2 to 4 inches to your height in just 10 weeks." But all is not harmless fun and games in the health fraud business. Tragedy is written between the lines of much of the copy. Offers of cheap, quick ways to treat heart disease, arthritis, alcoholism, depression and high blood pressure are bound to be taken seriously by someone. And that someone is most apt to suffer even more as a result.

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This article was originally published in the March 1985 issue of FDA Consumer. Mr. Miller was director of the FDA's communications staff.

This article was posted on January 23, 2005.

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