Consumer Health Digest #02-37

Your Weekly Update of News and Reviews
September 10, 2002

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.

New reports debunk "anti-aging medicine." The AARP Andrus Foundation and the International Longevity Center-USA (ILC-USA) have issued a 32-page booklet—Is there an 'anti-aging" medicine?—that warns against unsubstantiated "anti-aging" claims for growth hormone, estrogen replacement therapy, vitamins, minerals, and herbs. [The AARP Andrus Foundation and the International Longevity Center-USA examine the "anti-aging" industry in a consumer-targeted publication. News release, July 11, 2002] The booklet (a) gives a four-point warning system for spotting Web sites that may be making unproven claims; (b) outlines five common fallacies consumers make when considering taking a medication; (c) provides a checklist for consumers to go through if they are considering using an herbal product; and (d) outlines realistic health promotion strategies. A more detailed ILC-USA report with the same name discusses the scientific evidence (or lack of evidence) for various "anti-aging" strategies. Both reports can be read online or ordered in print form.

Authoritative herbal published. Pharmaceutical Press has published a second edition of Herbal Medicines, a 530-page guide with monographs on 148 herbs. Each monograph covers identifying features, constituents, food use, herbal use, dosage, pharmacologic action, adverse effects, contraindications, warnings, references, and comments that reflect the authors' analysis and advice. The authors note that "clinical efficacy has not been established for the majority of the herbal ingredients described in this handbook and, in some instances, there is lack of documentation for chemical constituents and for pharmacologic actions." They also note that although some toxic herbs have been eliminated from products manufactured in developed countries, "safety continues to be a matter of concern." Nevertheless, they have done their best to determine what ingredients may be suitable for medicinal use. The book is intended primarily for health professionals but its main points are understandable by laypersons. Quackwatch has additional information, a sample monograph, and a discount order form.

Quackwatch achieves 3-millionth home-page hit. The Quackwatch Web site registered its 3-millionth home-page hit on September 8th. The site typically has about 2,500 home-page hits and 40,000 to 50,000 page-view requests per day.

"Psychic" and husband plead guilty to tax evasion. Sonia and Steve Merino, of Manhattan Beach, California, have pled guilty to federal charges of failing to report $850,000 of income from 1995 through 1999. Documents in the case indicate that the couple and their daughter-in-law Nasta Merino operated "Sonia Psychic Advisor" a business that collected fees for palm readings, tarot card readings, and meditation. From 1995 through 2000, the couple attempted to conceal their income by asking clients to (a) pay with cash, gift certificates, and other goods; (b) write the word "loan" on checks even though the checks were payments for services; and (c) make checks payable to other persons. Sonia's plea agreement includes payment of $60,000 into a restitution fund that will be used to reimburse clients who were defrauded. The Merinos have also agreed that the proceeds from the sale of their house in Manhattan Beach should be used to pay restitution due in this case, including approximately $316,427 to the Internal Revenue Service. Their sentencing is scheduled for November 18. [Manhattan beach 'psychic' and her husband plead guilty to conspiracy to defraud the IRS. Department of Justice press release 02-131, Sept 5, 2002]

Mail fraud charges are still pending against Nasta Merino of Thousand Oaks. [Manhattan Beach and Thousand Oaks "psychics" arrested in $600,000 fraud and tax evasion scheme. US Dept of Justice press release, March 29, 2002] According to an Associated Press report: (a) Sonia and Nasta advertised psychic readings for as little as $10 but would tell clients they needed additional sessions for as much as $20,000 to get rid of a curse or negative spiritual force; (b) one client who went for a tarot card reading after a failed romance paid more than $518,000 and a car; and (c) a client who paid $1,200 for holy water actually received tap water. [Psychic and husband plead guilty to tax fraud. Associated Press, Sept 4, 2002]

Florida shuts down two phony medical malpractice companies. Florida Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher has ordered two unlicensed companies to stop selling worthless medical malpractice insurance to health care professionals in Florida. One company, Embassy Bonding & Surety, Ltd., falsely claimed to be associated with an unidentified New Zealand-based insurance operation. The other, based in Atlanta, operated as Physicians Exchange Association, Physicians Exchange Risk Retention Group, Doctors Liability Exchange and Reliance General Insurance Company. Its promoters included Professional Risk Management, LLC, of Boynton Beach, Florida, owned by a Florida insurance agent, Jerry Agtmaal. Other than Agtmaal, none of the "companies" or principals are licensed to transact insurance business in Florida. Increasing difficulty in obtaining malpractice coverage has created a situation that is attractive to con artists who claim to offer liability insurance at attractive rates. The AMA advises doctors to check the legitimacy of any company that has unusually low rates and/or does not investigate thoroughly before offering policies. [Albert T. Phony insurers bilking desperate doctors. American Medical News, Sept. 9, 2002]

VA advisor appointment upsets chiropractors. Many chiropractors are upset that the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) has appointed Charles Duvall, Jr., D.C., to its chiropractic advisory committee. The committee, required by the Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care Programs Enhancement Act of 2001, is intended to advise the Secretary of Veterans Affairs about protocols governing referral to chiropractors, extent of direct access, and scope and definition of chiropractic services. [VA appoints chiropractic advisory committee. DVA press release, Aug 12, 2002] Duvall, a former board chairman of the National Council Against Health Fraud, is a clear-thinking reformist who has criticized inappropriate chiropractic care for more than 20 years. Although the 11-person advisory committee will have other chiropractors, the American Chiropractic Association fears that Duvall's participation could "tip the scales against chiropractic—if he continues his past conduct of aligning with the medical profession." [Concerns raised over appointment to VA chiropractic committee. eACA today, Sept 2002] Dynamic Chiropractic, the leading chiropractic newspaper, is organizing a protest campaign that includes asking "every chiropractic association, college, company and individual that has a publication or website" to display an anti-Duvall logo to on the front page of their publications and all page of their sites. [Petersen D. Let's send a message. Dynamic Chiropractic, Sept 24, 2002]

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This page was posted on September 10, 2002.