Consumer Health Digest #13-46

Your Weekly Update of News and Reviews
December 5, 2013

Consumer Health Digest is a free weekly e-mail newsletter edited by Stephen Barrett, M.D., with help from William M. London, Ed.D., M.P.H. 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.

Unwanted robocalls have become a major nuisance. Participants in an informal survey by Policy and Action from Consumer Reports have reported that their biggest consumer complaint is "robocalls" (computerized, autodialed, pre-recorded messages). The products offered have included a medical alert system, health and life insurance plans, and home security systems. The Federal Trade Commission has stopped companies responsible for billions of illegal robocalls that have offered fraudulent credit card services, so-called auto warranty protection plans, medical discount cards, and grant procurement programs. Consumers Union is trying to get the Federal Communications Commission to do more to prevent them. Robocalling is facilitated by Web sites that can broadcast thousands of messages per second and permit callers to conceal their identity and phone numbers. Dr. Stephen Barrett believes that Congress should enact laws that would tighten the rules, make violations punishable by imprisonment, and penalize phone-broadcast systems that permit illegal calls. Ultimately, international cooperation may be needed.

Couric blasted for promoting anti-vaccination views. TV journalist Katie Couric is being severely criticized for giving a platform to a mother who alleged that a Gardasil shot killed her daughter and a physician who incorrectly claimed that the effect of the shot lasts only five years. Gardasil protects against human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, which is implicated as the most frequent cause of cervical cancer. Current data indicate that protection can last at least 8 years, but the vaccine has not been in use long enough to determine the average or maximum length of protection.

Couric's program was structured to make a pretense of "balance," but Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times has described why this was irresponsible:

To be fair, Couric announced at the outset of the segment that she'd had her own two daughters immunized against HPV. The segment also featured a pediatric expert advising that the vaccine is the best tool we have for the early prevention of HPV infection, and therefore for safeguarding against its possible consequences, which include cervical cancer in women and other cancers in men.

But those portions of the show had the flavor of "balance," presented to stave off accusations of pandering to ignorance. The real punch of the show was its portrayal of HPV vaccination as "controversial." Couric led the segment off by declaring that "some people say the risk [of the vaccine] may outweigh the benefits, and there are claims that it could be dangerous or in a handful of cases, even deadly. . . . We want to keep our kids safe, but is the vaccine the way to go?" Merely to ask the questions is to validate them.

The Harpocrates Speaks Blog links to severe criticism from other major blogs and mainstream media outlets.

Canadian bill to protect consumers is seriously flawed. The Ontario legislature is considering the Protecting Canadians from Unsafe Drugs Act, which would greatly strengthen the government's ability to regulate prescription and over-the-counter drugs. However, Bad Science Watch is concerned that the bill exempts "Natural Health Products" (such herbal products) from having to register and gain approval as "therapeutic products." The group has pointed out that this would mean that the government could issue a recall for a bad batch of lip balm but not for herbal remedies adulterated with pseudoephedrine or tainted with toxic heavy metals. Bad Science Watch is campaigning to amend the Act's definition of "therapeutic products" include NHPs.

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This page was posted on December 8, 2013.