Cutting through the haze of health marketing claims

Cutting through the haze of health marketing claims

Televised direct marketing, niche advertising, and the Internet have all aided in the proliferation of health fraud, dubious medical claims, fad diets, and other pseudoscientific hokum designed to extract millions of dollars a year from the health conscious. For candid, unbiased analysis of health claims, consider, an independently run web site with an abundance of well written articles that hold various medical claims up to the rigorous standards of scientific research.

Founded in 1969 as the Lehigh Valley Committee Against Health Fraud, Quackwatch, Inc. was incorporated in 1970. Affiliate web sites include: Acupuncture Watch, Autism Watch, Cancer Treatment Watch, Chirobase, Infomercial Watch, and Diet Scam Watch. The National Council Against Health Fraud co-sponsors the free weekly newsletter of Quackwatch.

A 30-year member of the Consumer Federation of America, in 1997 the Chapel Hill-based organization assumed its current name and began developing a worldwide network of volunteers and advisors. The medical advisory alone is composed of some 67 members. Other advisors include nutritionists, dentists, mental health advisors, veterinary advisors, and scientific/technical advisors. In a nutshell, Quackwatch investigates questionable health claims and reports misconduct, such as illegal marketing or misleading advertising, within the health community. At the same time, when an entity is shown to be a reliable source of medical information, Quackwatch is not afraid to announce it: also provides links to hundreds of trusted health sites. is divided into easily navigated categories, for example, “Consumer Strategy: Health Promotion,” within which a dozen or so concisely written, highly informative articles appear alongside their original publication dates. Topics range from Dietary Guidelines for Infants to Choosing Exercise Equipment. There are articles debunking the evidence against fluoridation of tap water, practical advice on checking a physician’s credentials, and a study of current scientific consensus on antioxidants and phytochemicals.

Quackwatch is the brainchild of Stephen Barrett, MD, a retired psychiatrist, scientific advisor to the American Council on Science and Health, and a Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). In 1984, he received an FDA Commissioner’s Special Citation Award for Public Service in fighting nutrition quackery. In 1986, he was awarded honorary membership in the American Dietetic Association.

Addressing critics who accuse him of unbalanced reporting, Dr. Barrett writes, “Balance is important when legitimate controversy exists. But quackery and fraud don’t involve legitimate controversy and are not balanced subjects. I don’t believe it is helpful to publish ‘balanced’ articles about unbalanced subjects … The information Quackwatch provides is not filtered by editors who are too timid or believe it is politically incorrect to provide the naked truth about theories and methods that are senseless. When discussing conflicting viewpoints, we indicate which ones are the most sensible.”

For an opinion representative of what may be called the “Quackwatch approach,” consider Barrett’s answer to the question, Do you believe there are any valid “alternative” treatments? “This question is unanswerable because it contains an invalid assumption. ‘Alternative’ is a slogan often used for promotional purposes, not a definable set of methods. Methods should be classified into three groups: (1) those that work, (2) those that don’t work, and (3) those we are not sure about. Most described as ‘alternative’ fall into the second group. But the only meaningful way to evaluate methods is to examine them individually, which we do.”

Quackwatch has defined the scope of its investigations clearly, and indicates that it is not focused on medical malpractice. Barrett says, “Our focus is on fraud and quackery. Malpractice is the failure to meet mainstream standards of care. Fraud is deliberate misrepresentation. Quackery, as we define it, involves the promotion of unsubstantiated methods that lack a scientifically plausible rationale. Although some overlap exists, most cases of malpractice involve negligence rather than fraud or the promotion of bogus methods. We focus on information that is difficult or impossible to get elsewhere.”

A minor quibble with is that the site does not seem to be updated quite enough. But given the volume of dubious medical claims reaching the market every day, it is astounding that they have kept up as well as they have. The articles that do appear on the site are clearly labeled by date, which helps the reader assess current controversy independent of claims that have been soundly debunked and have disappeared from public discourse. And the sheer abundance of well sourced articles is surprising for what may be in essence viewed as an unfunded passion project. Where the comprehensiveness falls short, the links to other sites with the relevant information are abundant.

So what lifestyle choices has Dr. Barrett made for health and longevity? He says, “My diet is about 10% fat and adequate in fiber. To keep fit, I do 2-4 sessions of aerobic exercise per week. On some days, I use a treadmill, exercise bike, and Nordic Track for a total of about 40 minutes. On other days, I swim about 1,500 yards in half an hour.” Not surprisingly, the program has resulted in excellent cholesterol levels and a resting pulse of 54.

For an example of the type of articles Quackwatch offers, see What is the True Value of Buying “Organic” Foods? in this issue.

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