Consumer Health Digest #14-15

Your Weekly Update of News and Reviews
April 27, 2014

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.

Herbalife distributors caught making improper medical claims. An undercover ABC News investigation has found many examples of distributors boasting to potential customers that the company's products helped treat serious ailments. [Ross B and others. Caught on video: Can Herbalife cure a brain tumor? ABC Nightline, April 22, 2014] In one case, a distributor even told an ABC reporter that a woman with a brain tumor became symptom-free after starting on Herbalife products. One of Herbalife's major growth areas is in "nutrition clubs"—neighborhood storefront locations where those interested in losing weight come to consume shakes and get coaching about their nutrition. When a ABC News reporter visited a nutrition club in Staten Island, he was given a document resembling medical intake form to fill out. Then he was escorted to what looked like a medical exam room, where he underwent a test that he was told showed his cholesterol was high. The distributor recommended Herbalife supplements to "help you clean your cholesterol." During an interview, Herbalife's president stated that the company uses "secret shoppers" to monitor distributor compliance and that he didn't think it was common for medical claims to be made. However, the company later disclosed that during 2013, it had disciplined nearly 600 distributors, 12 of whom were expelled, for violating its "no medical claims" policy.

Cleveland Clinic scorched for prescribing traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) herbal treatments. In January 2014, the Cleveland Clinic began operating a Chinese herbal-therapy clinic run by a "certified herbalist" who is licensed to practice "Oriental medicine." The products are obtained from a compounding pharmacy that specializes in custom herbal blends. The Wall Street Journal has described how new patients undergo a one-hour consultation that includes questions about body functions, a physical examination of the tongue, and pulse-taking based on the notion that "different" pulses reflect function of specific organs. [A top hospital opens up to Chinese herbs as medicines. Wall Street Journal, April 21, 2014] Steven Novella, M.D., responded to the news with a scathing report in which he concluded:

It is a scandal that a hospital would offer a medical service to their patients that is not based on the best science has to offer, is based on numerous deceptions and misrepresentations, logical fallacies, and poor methods. In fact, they make patients sign wavers that essentially say that what they are providing is not real medicine. Only the insanity of brilliant marketing can pull off such a deception. [Novella S. Herbal center at Cleveland Clinic. Science-Based Medicine Blog, April 23, 2014]

Acupuncture Watch explains why TCM tongue diagnosis and pulse-taking should be considered worthless.

FDA warns about misleading autism claims. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a Consumer Update about false and misleading autism treatment claims. The covered methods include hyperbaric oxygen therapy, Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS), CocoKefir probiotics products, and chelation therapy products (sprays, suppositories, capsules, liquid drops, and clay baths).

Severe "black salve" complication reported. A letter in the Medical Journal of Australia has reported the case of a 55-year-old man who had applied a bloodroot-containing black salve product to a spot on his right temple that he believed was cancerous. [Ong NC and others. Use of unlicensed salve for cutaneous malignancy. Medical Journal of Australia 200:314, 2014] Over a 4-month period, the salve burned a 1-inch-wide hole in his head that was so painful that he took narcotic pain medication. He finally sought medical care and was instructed how to care for his wound, which took three months to heal. [Malm S. Man left with an inch-wide HOLE in his head after using 'quack' ointment to treat skin cancer, Daily Mail, April 9, 2014] Most caustic salves contain bloodroot and/or zinc chloride. If a tumor is confined to the superficial layers of the skin, it would be possible to burn it off with a corrosive product. However, such products also burn the surrounding normal tissue and result in unnecessary scarring. Standard treatment methods can destroy superficial skin cancers with little or no damage to the nearby tissues. Quackwatch has further information about caustic salves.

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This page was posted on April 27, 2014.