Consumer Health Digest #01-31

Your Weekly Update of News and Reviews
July 30, 2001

Consumer Health Digest is a free weekly e-mail newsletter edited by Stephen Barrett, M.D., and cosponsored by NCAHF and Quackwatch. It summarizes scientific reports; legislative developments; enforcement actions; news reports; Web site evaluations; recommended and nonrecommended books; and other information relevant to consumer protection and consumer decision-making.

Psychic hotline sued. Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon has filed two lawsuits against Florida-based Access Resource Services Inc., which operates a "psychic hotline" best known for promoting "Miss Cleo's" psychic readings. The lawsuits allege 94 violations of Missouri's new No Call law and other consumer fraud violations. The hotline proprietors face civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation if found liable. A Missouri judge has issued a temporary restraining order barring the company from billing customers for advertised free services such as tarot and psychic readings and misrepresenting reduced rates and fee waivers for the first three minutes of each phone call. (Customers spent the three minutes providing information such as name, address and phone number and then were charged for time spent on hold waiting to speak with its psychic.) Nixon also said that Missouri residents who had never requested services from the psychic hotline have received bills, including dead persons. The Florida business also charged consumers for calls made by minors without first obtaining parental consent even though the hotline advertises that its services are for persons older than 18. The lawsuit seek civil penalties and a permanent injunction. The No Call lawsuit is the second Nixon has filed since the law went into effect July 1. Four other telemarketers have paid a total of $20,000 in civil penalties and have agreed to refrain from calling consumers on the list. [Nixon sues TV ad psychic Miss Cleo for fraud and No Call law violations; says "she should have seen this coming" News release, July 24, 2001] Missouri's No Call Law, enacted in 2000, states that, "No person or entity shall make or cause to be made any telephone solicitation to the telephone line of any residential subscriber in this state who has given notice to the attorney general . . . of such subscriber's objection to receiving telephone solicitations." Since December 11, 2000, more than 614,000 Missouri homes have signed up for the "no call" list. The Buffalo Better Business Bureau has received more than 1200 complaints about Miss Cleo's hotline. The Pennsylvania Attorney General filed suit against Access Resource Services in November 2000. [AG Fisher sues psychic entertainment businesses over alleged free reading scam. News release, Nov 11, 2000]

Popular women's magazines continue to ignore smoking risks. The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) has evaluated the health-related information published in Cosmopolitan, Elle, Family Circle, Glamour, Harper's Bazaar, Ladies' Home Journal, Mademoiselle, McCall's, Redbook, Self, Vogue, and Woman's Day from August 1999 through August 2000. All accepted cigarette advertisements. Fewer than 1% of their health-related articles had an anti-smoking theme. ACSH's report concludes:

These findings show the hypocrisy of women's magazines that advocate for healthy lifestyles yet continue to publish cigarette advertisements and fail to provide adequate coverage on the health-related consequences of smoking. . . .

If magazine editors find ample room to publish articles on staying fit and living a healthy lifestyle, then they should be able to devote some of this space to articles covering the serious health consequences associated with smoking. If not, they should at least mention the hazards of smoking in these health-related articles. Instead, these magazine editors are guilty of both omission and commission. Not only do they not cover cigarette-related diseases; they also edit out articles from where they would otherwise naturally be, such as in lists of how to live a long and healthy life. Meanwhile, they publish a plethora of cigarette ads and pro-smoking images that glamorize smoking. [Maroney CL: Tobacco and Women's Health: A Survey of Popular Women's Magazines. August 1999-August 2000.]

The full report can be downloaded free of charge or purchased in print form for $5.

Herbs can complicate surgical care. Three University of Chicago anesthesiolgists have expressed concerns that echinacea, ephedra, garlic, ginkgo, ginseng kava, St. Johns's wort, and valerian taken before or after surgery can cause a variety of adverse reactions. The direct effects include bleeding from garlic, ginkgo, and ginseng; cardiovascular effects from ephedra; low blood pressure from ginseng; and increased anesthetic effects from kava and valerian. [Ang-Lee MK and others. Herbal medicine and perioperative care. JAMA 286:208-216, 2001]

Hospitals must report serious medical errors to patients. The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations now requires disclosure of serious medical errors that harm patients. Under rules that became effective July 1, hospitals must have procedures in place for collecting information, developing preventive measures, and informing patients (or their representatives). A hospital that makes a serious medical mistake and fails to notify the patient could lose its accreditation. The Joint Commission prefers that the disclosure be made by the responsible physicians, which is consistent with the American Medical Association's ethical standard that physicians have a duty to be candid and truthful at all times [Adams D. Standards require hospitals to report errors to patients. American Medical News, July 29, 2001]

Free FDA newsletter about nutritional products. The FDA Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling, and Dietary will soon begin publishing a free quarterly E-mail newsletter "FDA-DSFL" (Dietary Supplement/Food Labeling) about regulatory actions related to food labeling, nutrition, and dietary supplements, as well as educational materials and important announcements. Subscriptions can be entered from the page

Internet "fen-phen" prescriber convicted.
On June 25, a federal court jury convicted Pietr Hitzig, M.D., on 34 counts of illegally prescribing medicine to ten patients and two undercover officers, many of whom he never met or examined. Most of the charges against Hitzig involved the improper dispensing of the diet drugs phentermine or fenfluramine, a combination that the FDA subsequently banned. Two charges involved Dilaudid and Percocet, which are narcotics. News reports indicate that Hitzig described himself as the "father of phen-fen." In 1999, he permanently surrendered his Maryland medical license and admitted having abused his authority, betrayed patients, and engaged in sexual contact with some of them.

Leading iridologist dies. Bernard Jensen, D.C. iridology's most prominent proponent, died on February 22, 2001, at the age of 92. Iridology is a pseudoscience based on the notion that each area of the body is represented by a corresponding area in the iris of the eye (the colored area surrounding the pupil). Iridologists claim that states of health and disease can be diagnosed according to the color, texture, and location of various pigment flecks in the eye. Iridology practitioners purport to diagnose "imbalances" and treat them with vitamins, minerals, herbs, and similar products. They may also claim that the eye markings can reveal a complete history of past illnesses as well as previous treatment. Most iridology practitioners are chiropractors and naturopaths, but laypersons who do "nutrition counseling" also are involved. Jensen, claimed that states that "Nature has provided us with a miniature television screen showing the most remote portions of the body by way of nerve reflex responses" and that iridology analyses "offer much more information about the state of the body than do the examinations of Western medicine." However, in 1979 he and two other proponents failed a scientific test in which they examined photographs of the eyes of 143 persons in an attempt to determine which ones had kidney impairments. (Forty-eight had been diagnosed with a standard kidney function test, and the rest had normal function.) The three iridologists showed no statistically significant ability to detect which patients had kidney disease and which did not. One iridologist, for example, decided that 88% of the normal patients had kidney disease, while another judged that 74% of patients who actually needed artificial kidney treatment were normal [Simon A and others. An evaluation of iridology. JAMA 242:1385-1387, 1979].

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This page was posted on July 30, 2001.