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No Easy Task : Investigator Fights Medical Quackery

May 03, 1987|LISA PERLMAN | Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — Willis A. Roose has been told he suffers from dozens of diseases and has been "treated" with everything from blood tonic to electrical impulses to sea water.

As director of drug control and sometime undercover agent for the Indiana State Board of Health, Roose says he's seen it all.

His specialty is quackery, a business he says is as big as ever but more difficult than ever to combat.

Though medical charlatans have been forced to invent more sophisticated ploys to entrap their unsuspecting prey, Roose says that as long as there are incurable diseases, the quack will never go hungry.

Looking to Live Longer

A person diagnosed as having an incurable disease "is going to be the biggest sucker for every quack in the Midwest," Roose says. "It's not a case of low intelligence; people just want to live longer."

From a large case next to his desk filled with gadgets that tell the history of quackery, Roose pulls out a "radioactive pad"--actually a bag filled with sand, he says. "But people believed it cured emphysema, migraines and hemorrhoids."

Before that, when electricity was a new phenomenon, "everyone had shock machines . . . people didn't understand it, so they believed that a little shock could cure anything," Roose says.

"These days you hear about all the cures coming from watercress, sea kelp and rose hips," he says.

While such practices as reflexology and zone therapy are popular, the "treatment" recently receiving the most exposure--and money--is the alleged misuse of a therapy that rids the body of heavy metals, such as lead, says Roose.

Dangerous Side Effects

Chelation therapy has been proven effective in ridding the body of metals for those, such as mine workers, who suffer from large amounts of heavy metals in their bodies. But some less-than-ethical doctors have been advertising the therapy also as a way to lower the body's cholesterol level, says Roose.

"So people are going in and paying $85 a shot--and this stuff has some side effects that can be dangerous."

Roose says that very few of the charlatans he investigates are fully licensed doctors. Sometimes, he says, the only way to make a firm case against a quack is to go undercover.

"I had one guy look at my foot and tell me that a bump on my big toe meant that I'm allergic to penicillin and that if I twist my little toe I can listen to my gallbladder flush," he laughs.

Lives Can Be Lost

"He'd give you a whole list of things that were wrong with you and then he'd sell you this tonic," which Roose pulls from his case. "He told me that if you take this for so many days in a row, then you'll pass this big, gelatinous mass through your intestines that constitutes cancer. We prosecuted him in Indiana one year and in Illinois the next."

While many see quackery as primarily a financial problem costing many believers thousands of dollars, in several cases deception and poor medical advice has cost people their lives.

In one case Roose handled several years ago, a woman from Fort Wayne who was diagnosed by a doctor as a diabetic was told by a quack that she had been falsely diagnosed and should stop taking her insulin immediately. The woman obeyed and died a short time later.

Once a consumer complaint comes into his office, Roose investigates but can do little to force a quack out of business because prosecutors are involved with more serious cases.

It's All in the Claims

And getting a case to the prosecuting stage is no easy task. Unless a product is sold with the claim that it is effective, there is no way for the health department to intervene, says Roose, whose office shelves are lined with old bottles of such "remedies" as Red Mountain Blood and Nerve Tonic.

Many products, such as a one-ounce bottle of tap water but labeled a "catalyst-altered normalizer" and selling for $4.95, come with a list of its many uses. "But it never says it does anything," Roose says. "As long as they know how to advertise the right way without ever saying the product is effective, I can't touch 'em."

When prosecution is not an option, the only other way to effectively deal with quackery is through educating the public to the "telltale signs," he says. "If it sounds far out, it probably is."

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