Volume 2 | Issue 9 | Page 1 | May 16, 1988
Quackbusters Inc.: Hot On The Heels Of Medical Hucksters
By Rex Dalton
Pseudomedicine Is A Multibillion Dollar Business In The U.S.
On weekends, medical researcher Wallace I. Sampson often leaves his suburban home and drives up the peninsula into San. Francisco. He sees himself as an investigator "his quarry, an epidemic that’s ravaging the City by the Bay." But it’s not the AIDS virus he’s after. Although a hematologist by training, Sampson is hunting tainted medicine, not tainted blood He’s a quackbuster.
In recent months, Sampson uncovered hucksters selling an unlicensed preparation allegedly containing interleukin2, an experimental drug not widely approved for clinical use against AIDS in the Battle Against Health Fraud United States. Sampson’s report contributed to the firm’s being put out of operation.
He also learned about "and issued a quack-alert concerning" a faith-healer he describes as "the Dallas Cowgirl cheerleader of AIDS patients." It seems this woman convinced AIDS sufferers that they can conquer the fatal disease simply by looking in a mirror and loving themselves.
And then there was a licensed doctor who Sampson claims to have found extracting substantial sums of money for taking AIDS patients’ blood, treating it with oxygen-3, and reinjecting it into the patients. Called "ozone therapy," such treatments have never been shown by any scientific study to be of any help to AIDS patients. So Sampson reported him to the California medical board.
To Sampson, such individuals are "sociopaths, highly self-centered con artists." He should know. He is a founding member of an organization called the National Council Against Health Fraud Inc.
The core of this 2,300-member "quackbusters, incorporated" is made up of nearly 1,000 physicians, scientists, and educators who are devoted to exposing medical fraud schemes, alerting governmental agencies to scams, and writing newsletters about the dangers of permitting such practices to proliferate.
"We got together in the late 1970s to do something jointly for public education," recalls Sampson, 58, who also teaches a course in "medical pseudoscience" at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. "It was during the laetrile era. We were fearful of the propaganda that comes with this type of fraudulent remedy. If public policy was made by those making fraudulent statements, like laetrile proponents, then society was in trouble. We thought it was time to swing the pendulum the other way." But the group’s crusade against what they see as an international propaganda machine spewing out "anti-science" faces heavy odds.
Authorities estimate that from $10 billion to $25 billion is spent annually on fraudulent and/or questionable remedies. Many of those pedding "alternative therapies" work through alliances of promoters, quasi-nutritionists and "freedom of choice" practitioners, such as those who advocate the use of laetrile, cyanide-laced tablets derived from apricot pits. They insulate themselves via corporate structure, move jurisdictions of operation to avoid legal action, and even go offshore to Mexico or the Bahamas when the heat gets too high. For example, a zoologist once involved in probing the mysteries of cancer moved to the Bahamas and set up an immune therapy clinic there after his research was repudiated in this country.
The National Council fights back on a tiny budget—$50,000 annually collected from small member-donations. "Sometimes you wonder why you do this; but if someone isn’t willing to stand up against quackery and fight for truth and honesty, then society is in a lot of trouble," says William Jarvis, president of the National Council. In 1976, Jarvis, a health educator at Loma Linda University’s School of Medicine, near Los Angeles, started the National Council’s forerunner, "the Southern California Council Against Health Fraud" with five individuals. Shortly thereafter, Sampson started a Northern California group following an evening meeting in the Berkeley home of Thomas Jukes. Jukes is the 82-year-old University of California biophysicist who in the late 1940s invented the first successful cancer chemotherapy, methatrexate. The two groups joined in 1984.
Jarvis has dedicated much of his academic career to the study of quackery. "When I started, no one was taking a systematic approach to quackery as a health problem," he said. "There was no epidemiology for quackery, like there is for cancer or drug abuse. So I sought to resolve the problem in the same manner as scholars approach other problems. I tried to look at the host factors, the causal agents, and the environment of quackery."
In a recent issue of the National Council’s four-page newsletter, for example, Jarvis reports on the results of several surveys of the types of patients drawn to holistic therapies. He goes on to examine how fad therapies are used to exploit families with a developmentally disabled child. And he points to similarities between the traits of some of the most notorious quacks and behavior patterns identified by psychologists as typical of psychopaths.
Council members do more than write scholarly treatises, however; many quackbusters actively confront their quarries. Take 55-year old Kansas City physician John Renner. Every so often, Renner will don special garb and wade among quacks, offering himself as a guinea pig. In January, he covered his head in bandages, got into a wheelchair, and rolled into a health conference where alternative therapies were advocated.
When left alone by his attendant, two quacks got in a fight over who was going to fleece him first, Renner says. "One was into colonies, and wanted to give me an enema; the other was a garlic salesman," he says. "They never even asked what I had. Later I told people I had a yeast infection. One guy wanted to draw my blood. He offered a ‘show special,’ $900 worth of tests for only $600. All he wanted was my Medicare number.
Council member Steven Barrett, an Allentown, Pa. psychiatrist, uses whole networks of volunteer undercover operatives to infiltrate unorthodox groups, for the National Council. Since the late 1960s, Barrett has been churning out reports on his inquiries. The results of his probes not only have been published in his monthly newsletter, "Nutrition Forum," but have become the grist for successful court actions against, multi-level marketing schemes (pyramid firms), Postal Service mail fraud convictions, and Federal Trade Commission probes of questionable marketing techniques at health food stores.
The quacks don’t always take the assaults of the quackbusters lying down; they have been known to fight back in kind. Intending to stage a protest at a recent convention the National Council had in Kansas City, an unorthodox— treatment promoter tried to impersonate a media reporter in order to gain access to the meeting. He was ejected, but he staged demonstrations outside the meeting every day for the duration-of the conference.
Every so often the quackbusters become the targets. Last year, for example, Peter Joseph Lisa, a proponent of alternative treatments, wrote -and published a book entitled “The Great Medical Monopoly Wars,” in which he attacked one of the National Council’s most respected members, Victor Herbert. Lisa questioned Herbert’s treatment of patients, challenged his military record, and made other allegedly defamatory assertions.
Herbert, a lab head at the Bronx, N.Y, Veterans medical center, is a renowned expert in hematology and nutrition. But because he has been testifying against quacks for decades in cases brought by the FDA and the U.S. Postal Service, he believes quacks have put him at the top of their "enemies list."
However, Herbert’s fellow council members knew that Lisa had aimed at a dangerous target. Says Jarvis, "He [Herbert] is a real fiesty guy, not afraid of anyone. He is the kind you need to fight quackery. This is not work for faint-hearted people."
Sure enough, Herbert’s blood boiled when he learned of Lisa's attack. Asked why he didn’t just ignore a book he himself believes would never be read by a reputable scientist, Herbert says: "They accused me of murdering patients. This is a malicious lie. That is not tolerable."
So Herbert sued. But while he was at it, he included more than a dozen proponents of unorthodox therapies as well as Lisa. Then he went one step further: his suit took on the American Quack Association, an informal group of alternative therapists that describes itself as being determined to "de-mythicize" the term "quack". This organization actually holds meetings across the street from the American Medical Association headquarters building in Chicago. According to Michael K. Botts, general counsel to the National Council Against Health Fraud, some of the American-Quack Association’s key players "have ridden the crest of every major health fraud in the last 20 years."
To members of the National Council, the Lisa book’s attack on Herbert may prove disastrous to the world of quackery. Botts, who is also Herbert’s attorney, expects the discovery process in the lawsuit filed last December to produce an unprecedentedly extensive record of the quackery industry’s far-reaching activities.
On still another front, earlier this year, Allentown psychiatrist Barrett and the National Council formed what Barrett feels will be "the most powerful anti-quackery method ever devised." It is called the Task Force on Victim Redress. "The National Council’s Task Force will help victims of quackery by getting them the competent legal assistance they need," reads the group’s statement of purpose. "It will serve attorneys as a clearing house for reliable information on the latest frauds and the experts who can help prove their cases. Help also will be available to insurance companies and law enforcement agencies."
"We will publicize the fact that if you are hurt or cheated, or if corrective action is necessary against a disreputable health-care practice, we will help," said Barrett, who chairs the seven-person group. To search out cases, the group will rely on its allies, like Sampson.
It’s not likely that the Task Force will run short of victims to help, just as there’s no shortage of bizarre targets. Take the Berkeley, Calif., institute that Sampson recently discovered to be using a classic money making scheme, where a quack will take "old methods" of medical chicanery and "redesign them" to exploit a new health problem. In this case, says Sampson, the institute is out to profit from the AIDS epidemic.
He asserts that the institute has long advocated a method of fighting cancer by means of "detoxifying" the patient, a process that includes lowering the patient’s body temperature and seeing that the patient drinks large quantities of water.
"They have now transferred this to AIDS," says Sampson. "They have men sitting around, not wearing underwear—so the testicles stay cooler and drinking distilled water. For’ this, they charge a couple of hundred. dollars."
Rex Dalton is a reporter for the San Diego Union.
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