FORGET penicillin. The Revigator was the real medical breakthrough of the 20th century. It cured diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, "inflammation of the uterus" and many other maladies. Or so the ads claimed.
The Revigator, a water jug lined with radium, is no longer available in stores. Somewhere around 1930, the general public lost interest in a product that made their lemonade and coffee dangerously radioactive.
These days, few people -- we hope! -- would be gullible enough to believe that radioactive water could cure all of their ills. But many of us are happy enough to believe in the healing powers of magnetic bracelets or infrared lamps. And just a couple of years ago, people flocked to buy Seasilver, a big-selling blend of seaweed, aloe vera and other herbal ingredients that was purported to cause permanent weight loss while curing AIDS, cancer, anthrax and nearly 650 other diseases -- enough to make the Revigator look like a sugar-pill dispenser.
Health products have changed over the decades, as have many of the buzz words they use to lure customers: Today's products are more likely to "harmonize" and "optimize" than to "revigorate" or "revitalize." They've also updated their sciency-sounding claims.
An electric belt sold in the 1900s exploited the "principle of the voltaic pile" to restore a patient's "vital or nerve force." At the time, electricity seemed new and magical.
Today, a bottle of Colloidal DNA Boost gives consumers a chance to enjoy the "bioenergetic repatterning signal of healthy DNA," a claim that clearly plays on the public's fascination with genes and genetic engineering.
And yet many things have stayed the same since the days of the Revigator -- or, for that matter, the days of horse-drawn carts filled with snake oil. Marketers still tout miracle devices, magic pills and instant health, promises that continue to sell no matter how often they're repeated and recycled. Hucksters also continue to profit on hopes, faith and desperation, natural resources that will never run out.
By law, ads and labeling for over-the-counter health products can't be false or misleading. But enforcement is so light and sporadic that the law is barely noticeable on the airwaves, the Internet or drugstore shelves. In fact, says Matthew Daynard, a senior attorney in the Federal Trade Commission's advertising practices division, ads and product packages are minefields of deception, misdirection and outright fraud. Some products, he says, live up to their billing and deliver on their claims, but many other promises go unfulfilled.
"Consumers should be highly skeptical of claims made for any pill, patch, cream or device," Daynard says.
Since the FTC and the Food and Drug Administration don't have enough resources to go after every product sold under false pretenses, Daynard says, it's largely up to consumers to protect themselves and put deceptive marketers out of business. "We like to think of consumers as our agents in the field," he says.
Nobody can possibly keep track of all the latest medical advances or health products, but consumers can learn to spot the tell-tale signs of bogus remedies and false promises, says Dr. Brent Bauer, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "People have to do their own homework."
Staying vigilant is hard work because it goes against our basic human instincts, says Joe Nickell, a senior research fellow with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry who has investigated bogus Mexican cancer clinics and other forms of quackery. The deep desire to feel better can easily push aside questions and doubts, he says. "Quack treatments appeal to emotions. People stop thinking with the organ above their neck. They think with their heart or their gut."
We may know more about health and medicine than previous generations, but all of that progress hasn't dampened our wishful thinking, especially in the face of illness, Nickell adds. "A little voice may tell you that it's a long shot, but you put that voice aside," he says.
The fickle nature of health makes it easier for people to believe in worthless products, Nickell says. Symptoms naturally fade in and out. By chance, some people are bound to feel better after trying the latest pill or elixir. And thus, another believer is born.
Before you stake your health or your money on this or that product, the first thing you can do is some online sleuthing. Check to see if a device has really won FDA approval by visiting the "devices@FDA" link. (It's at www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/devicesatfda.) Likewise, www.ftc.gov lists companies that have been targeted by the FDA or FTC for unfair or illegal marketing practices. Experts also recommend Consumer Reports on Health (www.consumerreports.org/main/crh/home.jsp) as a reliable, unbiased source of information on dietary supplements.
That's a good start. But you should also watch for these calling cards of quackery.