Looking at some Internet, magazine, and TV health ads, you might imagine that there's a pill, a potion, or a device for literally everything that stands between you and perfect health, a perfect body, and a perfect life. Sure, you want to get healthier and improve your life, but how do you make sense of all these competing claims?
It used to be easier, says Wallace Sampson, MD, clinical professor of medicine emeritus at Stanford University and editor of Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. "We used to be able to say that any legitimate medical product would not be advertised directly to the public, but that's all changed now, so it's harder to distinguish." With new, looser policies on medical advertising, today you might find legitimate ads for tested and proven prescription and over-the-counter medications on television and in magazines right next to more dodgy "Lose 30 pounds in 15 days!" health ads.
"If you have a health-related product or a method, you can say almost anything you want under today's laws without getting sued, and chances are good that a regulatory agency won't come after you," Sampson says. "You can get away with almost anything for a while, because there's so much of it and so few investigators."
Let the Reader (and Viewer) Beware
"But I wouldn't fall for a bogus health ad!" you might be thinking. It's surprising, though, how many people are vulnerable to fad health ads. "Many people believe that if something is printed or broadcast, it must be true or somehow its publication would not be allowed," says Stephen Barrett, MD, a retired psychiatrist in Pennsylvania who operates Quackwatch (www.quackwatch.com), a health-scam-debunking web site that's been honored by the AMA, Forbes, and U.S. News and World Report as among the "Best of the Web." (Barrett and Sampson both also serve on the board of the National Council Against Health Fraud.)
So how can you tell if an health ad's promises are too good to be true? Here are a few red flags:
- Consider the neighborhood. If it's on a late-night TV infomercial on a local cable channel, regard products in health ads skeptically. If it were really that good, wouldn't they be able to afford to run an ad when most people are still up? "If it's on late-night television as an infomercial, it's almost 100% likely to be specious," says Sampson. Similarly, back-of-the-magazine health ads are often questionable. "I've done two studies -- one in 1979 and one in 1990 -- where we looked at every nationally circulating magazine in the United States. Not a single pill or potion advertised could live up to its claims," says Barrett.
- Be wary of the word "alternative." Alternative and complementary medicine have won increased credibility in the past few years, but when the word "alternative" is used in a health ad, it can signal something that hasn't been properly tested or proved. "Calling something 'alternative' in an ad should at least be a yellow flag," says Sampson.
- Health ads that promise quick, dramatic, miraculous results. You'll see a lot of this with weight-loss and fitness products in particular. We all know that losing weight and keeping it off takes time and effort. But we don't want to believe it. "Advertisers would like you to believe that special pills or food combinations can cause 'effortless' weight loss. But the only way to lose weight is to burn off more calories than you eat. This requires self-discipline: eating less, exercising more, or preferably doing both," says Barrett.
- Health ads that use disclaimers couched in pseudomedical jargon. "Instead of promising to cure your disease, they may promise to 'detoxify,' 'purify,' or 'revitalize' your body; 'balance' its chemistry or 'electromagnetic energy'; or bring it in harmony with nature," says Barrett. Quick: how would you know if your body chemistry has been "balanced?" "Since it's impossible to measure the processes they allege, it may be difficult to prove them wrong," he notes.
- Health ads that use anecdotes and testimonials to support their claims. "We all tend to believe what others tell us about personal experiences. But separating cause and effect from coincidence can be difficult," says Barrett. "If people tell you that product X has cured their cancer, arthritis, or whatever, be skeptical. Establishing medical truths requires careful and repeated investigation -- with well-designed experiments, not reports of coincidences misperceived as cause-and-effect."
- Health ads that offer questionnaires demonstrating how much you need their products. Wonder if anyone's ever taken the questionnaire and found out they didn't need the product advertised? Not usually, says Barrett. "I've tested about a dozen questionnaires in health product ads extensively," he says. "I took the tests 10, 20, or 30 times to figure out what happens when you give different responses. They're always going to tell you that you need to buy something."
In general, say both Sampson and Barrett, be wary of any claims made in TV, Internet, and magazine health ads about the benefits of vitamins, herbs, and supplements. Since these products aren't regulated by the FDA, advertisers can sell, and say, largely what they want. "I don't think anyone can profitably remain in business by selling supplements honestly, because in order to do that, you'd have to state when it's appropriate to take it, state who does not need it, and price it appropriately, without giving some baloney about how it's better than the competition so you should pay more. Nobody does that," Barrett says.
Finally, beware of any health ads that suggest you shouldn't trust your doctor. If you're really interested in the claims of a health ad, take it to your doctor and see what he or she says.
Published March 31, 2003.