Miracle cures: How to separate the solutions from the snake oil

One of my favorite scenes in Man on the Moon occurs near the end: Andy Kaufman, played by Jim Carrey, is in the Philippines, awaiting a miracle treatment for the cancer that is killing him. Looking over at the doctor, Kaufman sees him hide some chicken gizzards in his hand before pretending to pull them out of a patient. As he lays back against his gurney, Kaufman smiles; a lifelong prankster, he realizes that he, himself has fallen for a trick.

While I wouldn't call myself an herbalist, a naturalist, or a witch doctor, I definitely have an appreciation of alternative remedies. When I'm feeling under the weather, I try to eat a couple of oysters or a plate of ceviche: both are high in zinc, and often get me back on my feet. I take fish oil every day, and have been known to indulge in mushroom pills, garlic supplements, Kava-kava, and the occasional glass of absinthe.

That having been said, I'm also aware that the FDA exists for a reason. Recently, the government agency cracked down on 25 retailers who were selling so-called "cancer cures" under false pretenses. Because the internet has made it possible for overseas con artists to sell fake cures to Americans, it is almost impossible for the FDA to completely police all of the snake-oil salesmen out there. With that in mind, they have produced a list of warning signs that a product is not legitimate:

  • Claims that a drug is an all-purpose cure-all.
  • Claims that a drug can cure serious or incurable illnesses.
  • Use of terms like "scientific breakthrough," "miraculous cure," "secret ingredient" and "ancient remedy."
  • Use of pseudo-scientific terms like "hunger stimulation point" and "thermogenesis."
  • Claims that a product is safe because it is natural.
  • Testimonials or undocumented case histories.
  • Claims that a product is in limited supply or that money must be paid in advance.
  • No-risk, money-back guarantees.
  • Promises of "easy fixes" for complex or chronic problems.
While the medical establishment doesn't have a lock on all cures, any cure with documented, long-term effectiveness will probably have scores of case histories and peer reviews, many of which can be accessed through the internet. If you can't find a paper trail for a cure, chances are that it isn't trustworthy!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He was surprised to learn that Snake Oil is an actual Chinese cure for muscle pain. That's so cool!
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