SAME SNAKE OIL, DIFFERENT BOTTLE ON QUACKWATCH.COM
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
When Gaetano Donizetti was composing L'Elisir D'Amore ("The Elixir of Love") in 1832, little did he know that the playful satire he was setting to music would find kinship in the wild claims of the nutritional supplements hucksters of the twenty-first century.
Here is how the wandering peddler Doctor Dulcamara describes what his tonic can do (Libretto by Felice Romani, English translation by Ruth and Thomas Martin; Schirmer, Inc 1960):
For every ill, for all who ail, I sell the proper cure. My panaceas never fail - they're absolutely sure. My panaceas never fail, they're absolutely sure. For instance, here's a liniment, my special pain reliever - it does away with mice and rats, and also with a fever. For cases which are chronic, there's nothing like this tonic!
I am reminded of Donizetti's operatic clowning whenever I visit that moldy cellar of the radio business, the nutritional supplement infomercial.
Driving along, flicking through the radio channels, you will come across what sounds like an interview show in which Dr Smith or Jones explains why certain nutrients are essential to our longevity, immune function, smooth skin, sexual potency, joint health, prostatic function and of course resistance to cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
The format will most likely be predictable, as these shows all seem to be created using the same cookie cutter. There will be the interviewer who listens to the good doctor, every now and then interrupting the learned one's remarks to add a sincerely impressed sounding, "Amazing!" or a slightly more muted, "Wow!" The two will make little jokes with each other and chuckle appreciatively. Sometimes there will be the telephone sideshow, as in, "Let's take some phone calls." This leads to phone calls that are supposed to be real but sound staged and artificial.
The other common element in these infomercials is the absolutely shameless tendency to make claims that bear no resemblance to scientifically verified (or even verifiable) findings.
One of the worst examples of this genre was a radio program selling something called Seasilver. When I first heard it, I was amazed, but not in the way the program intended. It claimed that this product "cleanses the organs, purifies the blood, nourishes the body, oxygenates at a cellular level and strengthens the immune system." It supposedly "aids in the relief of indigestion and ulcers," has the ability "to oxygenate at a cellular level," and "boosts the immune system and destroys viruses, bacteria and fungus." Pretty good so far - for a product that seems to be made of ground up metallic silver, extracts of oceanic plants, and various vitamins and minerals that could be obtained from your Flintstones vitamins.
That's not all, of course. We hear of truly miraculous recoveries from terminal cancers and diabetes even as Seasilver users watch the pounds melt away and enjoy newly found physical vigor.
Meanwhile, the supposed expert makes authoritative-sounding remarks about human physiology and biochemistry, even as he mispronounces common biochemical terms that any biology major would know.
It would take an extraordinary amount of medical knowledge and work to respond adequately to the Seasilver hucksters. Luckily, two different organizations did, one being the Federal Trade Commission, the other being www.Quackwatch.org.
Quackwatch is probably the best Internet site dedicated to providing scientifically credible critiques of that vast industry which euphemistically refers to itself as "alternative medicine." Quackwatch targets include the usual run of snake oil peddlers such as Seasilver as well as the spiritual healers who make no pretense about their lack of scientific background.
Quackwatch is the product of Stephen Barrett, M.D, a retired psychiatrist who has been laboring in the anti-quack wars for decades. It includes strong advisory boards in medicine, science and law and has won awards from U.S. News and World Report and New Scientist, among many others.
Quackwatch is worthy of a whole column of its own (as it has a wide variety of topics and targets) but for purposes of the present discussion, think of Quackwatch as the "gold standard" in the criticism of pseudoscientific claims and scams.
You can go to Quackwatch and find the Seasilver story, including a complete transcript of the radio infomercial that I heard. You can find a link to the FTC complaint which announces a joint FTC and FDA (Food and Drug Administration) crackdown on Seasilver, including charges of making unsubstantiated medical claims as well as fraudulent marketing of the product.
We are free to use the Seasilver story because there is a public record including federal court documents, records of the seizure by federal officers of supplies from Seasilver warehouses, and the federal court order which forbids Seasilver from making false claims.
It is important to realize that Seasilver is just one particularly bad example. Just about any radio infomercial you happen to tune in may be equally shady. The currently popular nostrums include agents said to release human growth hormone from the pituitary gland (a dangerous prospect if it were true, which it probably is not), many plant extract and multivitamin formulations, and the ever present dietary supplements.
For years, journalists and doctors warned about the dangers of using the supplement ephedra (also known as Ma Huang) because it can cause heart irregularities and sometimes death, but this did not stop the nutritional supplement industry from promoting ephedra containing products for weight loss until the deaths of professional athletes brought the subject to public (and political) notice. Now the supplements industry is promoting ephedra-free products (as if they had brilliantly and courageously invented the concept) and you can hear it on the latest round of radio shows.
The federal court order against Seasilver also forbids the misuse of testimonials in order to sell its product. Testimonials and anecdotes are a major part of the nutritional supplement infomercial game (just as they are in other alternative medicine disciplines). Mainstream scientists are wary of anecdotal evidence because it so often is used to support claims that are directly contrary to what careful science has found.
Just read these testimonials, they're signed and certified. By using this great remedy, I positively guarantee, an eighty year old farmer became the happy grandpa of fifteen healthy grandsons before he finally died. (He lived to be a hundred, if I remember right.)
Quackwatch carries a long and serious discussion of the weakness of anecdotal evidence and testimonials in the evaluation of drug effectiveness, for which we should be appropriately grateful, but we may also enjoy Donizetti's spoof of the testimonial racket two centuries ago.
And then there are the viral illnesses such as AIDS, the autoimmune disorders, all the myriad ailments we are heir to. No wonder we want a panacea.
This huckleberry syrup will positively clear up the mumps the hives and whooping cough in less than over night. You ladies of maturer years would like your youth recaptured? Apply this cream at night, my dears, your mates will be enraptured! Apply this cream at night, my dears, your mates will be enraptured! What misses under twenty would like a peach complexion? What lads with prudish sweethearts would win their quick affection?
That certainly says it all for the eternal youth salves and supplements, of which the human growth hormone scam is but the latest.
I recently had the good fortune to see The Elixir of Love performed live. It was the music that I came to enjoy, and that I did. but the quack doctor's aria reminded me particularly well of what I have been hearing on my local radio stations, if in a different language now and with a few of the words updated ("stimulates the immune system" is the latest cure-all term).
It kills the worst rheumatic pain, relieves a cough and muscle strain; no matter what your trouble is, it makes you feel like new. Though this may seem a paradox, it also cures the chickenpox. It makes hysteric girls serene, makes thin men fat, and fat men lean.
Well, he certainly got the weight-loss tonics there.