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Snake Oil Salesmen Slither to the Web

Sites illegally touting 'cancer cures' abound, says survey

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 3, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Web sites selling herbal supplements as a prevention, treatment or even a cure for cancer are plentiful and easy to find -- and they are also breaking the law, a new survey shows.

These sites are preying on desperate people, and the government needs to police them, says Dr. Robert Bonakdar, a researcher for Scripps Center for Integrated Medicine in La Jolla, Calif., who did the survey.

But the government needs the public to help; it can only do so much, says the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC can impose fines of up to $11,000 per violation, or order the site to stop advertising a product if its claims are proven false. Consumers should alert the government to Web sites selling "miracle cures." But there are millions of sites, millions of products, and it is difficult to police them all.

"I came upon this issue because I had several cancer patients who brought in bottles of supplements, basically asking me: 'Can this cure cancer?'" says Bonakdar. The patients, he adds, had bought the supplements through the Internet.

"In reading the claims from the Web site, these patients had come to believe that the supplement could cure cancer," Bonakdar says. "All the supplement was, was just a whole bunch of different herbs and minerals."

Bonakdar's findings were to be presented today at the American Academy of Family Physicians 2001 Scientific Sessions in Atlanta.

To see if there were other sites that contained misleading information, Bonakdar searched the Web for sites that touted herbal cancer treatments. He pared the tens of thousands of sites brought up in the search down to about 70 and sorted them according to whether they were commercial or non-commercial, whether they claimed they could prevent, treat or cure disease, and whether they suggested you see your doctor. "I also looked at whether the site had references or researchers, did they include testimonials and what country they originated from," he adds.

Of the 70 sites touting herbal cancer treatments, "34 were commercial sites selling supplements," Bonakdar says.

Of those, he adds, 92 percent claimed that their herbal supplement could prevent cancer, 89 percent said their supplement could treat cancer, and 58 percent said their supplement could cure cancer.

"The sites use a lot of patient testimonials to boost their product, and they are lacking in physician consultation advice," he adds.

The Web sites also do not conform to the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), which prohibits any claims for disease prevention, treatment or cure, Bonakdar points out.

"I think DSHEA has good intentions, but obviously no one's monitoring the Web," Bonakdar says.

Not so, says the government. It is monitoring the Web and has programs in place to catch and prosecute sites that make false or misleading claims.

"I'm surprise he didn't find more sites" says Richard Cleland, the FTC's senior attorney in Washington, D.C. "I think there are a lot more of these sites, and they are a huge problem in terms of the number that are offering questionable cures for cancer and other serious diseases."

Cleland says the government is pursuing these sites. "So far, we have sent out about 1,000 warning or advisory letters to Web sites making questionable claims this year alone," Cleland says. "We have also filed 15 law enforcement action, and we are continuing to monitor the Internet."

But the public has to help, he adds.

"The public is critical in this effort. When members of the public see sites, they can report them to us and we can look at them," Cleland says. "It's our view that the public needs to be aware that there are plenty of snake oil salesmen on the Internet, and they should be very skeptical when they see certain signs or signals -- things like 'miraculous cures' or testimonials of cures of multiple cancers.

"The very idea that one drug or supplement can cure multiple cancers should be a source of skepticism," he adds.

What To Do

For more on what you can do about false health claims on the Internet, see the Federal Trade Commission and its rules for what advertisers can and cannot say. Here's also what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has to say on the subject.

Think you've been taken for a ride by false claims? To file a complaint, or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). To get an overview of what scams are currently going around, check out Consumer Sentinel.

SOURCES: Interviews with Robert Bonakdar, M.D., clinical and research fellow, Scripps Center for Integrated Medicine, La Jolla, Calif.; Richard Cleland, senior attorney, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C.; Oct. 3, 2001, American Academy of Family Physicians Scientific Session presentation, Atlanta
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