Tijuana medical clinic operators claim they have been forced south of the border by the American Medical Assn., big pharmaceutical firms and state and federal food and drug agencies in a conspiracy to protect the lucrative business of treating cancer and other diseases in the United States.
Clinic operators say that in Mexico, with its less stringent medical regulations, they are able to practice "alternative" medicine free of harassment by authorities north of the border.
"There is what amounts to a $60-billion cancer industry in the U.S.A.," said Michael L. Culbert, information director for American Biologics, a Tijuana clinic that treated actor Steve McQueen for cancer shortly before he died.
"This industry is wrapped around and interlocked with the vested interests--pharmaceutical companies, research grants," said Culbert, a former newspaperman and flying saucer enthusiast.
"And it's just an obscenity that American citizens have to go underground or flee their country in order to get . . . Laetrile, DMSO (dimethylsulfoxide) or live-cell therapy."
Tijuana clinic operators point to what they call the "cut, burn and poison" methods of conventional cancer treatment and the failure of the medical establishment to cure diseases such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Patients, they argue, should have a right to seek unorthodox medical care.
But William Jarvis, president of the National Council Against Health Fraud, maintains that the basic issue is one of consumer protection.
"When someone goes into the marketplace to buy something for themselves, their loved ones, their children," said Jarvis, an associate professor of preventive medicine at Loma Linda University, "they should not be faced with such an array of promotions, some of which are true and some of which are false, that it's impossible to tell the difference on the face of it."
Jarvis says he doesn't expect quackery to be abolished, but he protests the open advertising of Tijuana clinics and solicitation of patients.
"Quackery belongs underground," he said, "where the deluded and the people who are just bound and determined to seek those things out can find it. But it shouldn't be store-front to the point that average people actually come to believe that it's a legitimate alternative. And that's when you're going to get tragedies."
Far from reflecting a powerful conspiracy, he said, the medical fraud laws and their enforcement in California and other states deal only with the more flagrant practices of quackery.
Quacks Rarely Jailed
Even though California law makes it a felony to treat cancer disease with any method not proven safe and effective, quacks operating in California are rarely jailed, Jarvis said.
The state attorney general's office in 1985 formed a task force of various state and federal health and law enforcement agencies to address health fraud. One of its concerns was the Tijuana clinics and what agencies might have jurisdiction there. So far, the task force has taken no action.
"We don't have an answer back yet from the agencies as to what jurisdiction they have," said Herschel Elkins, senior assistant attorney general.
As for the bus tours, promotions and advertisements for Tijuana clinics, Michael Bogumill of the state Health Department's food and drug branch, said it is difficult to prove a false advertising charge, for example, unless there is a sale of a bogus medical product in California.
There is also the problem of finding victims who complain.
For example, the Rosarita Beach Clinic's practice of diagnosing blood samples sent through the mail violates U.S. postal laws and state and federal food and drug laws governing medical devices, authorities said. But there have been no complaints on which to build a case.
Many former clinic patients or members of their families who were interviewed by The Times said they continue to believe in the treatments given in Tijuana, regardless of results, and they are thankful for the hope they were given.
Others may not be anxious to admit it if they were duped.
"They may feel foolish, embarrassed that it didn't work," said Cecilia Olkowski, assistant director of research for the California division of the American Cancer Society.
And Olkowski cites another reason why some might not complain:
"If you're dead, you can't say anything."