What makes these quacks different from all other quacks?

These quacks are in a bit of trouble. The FTC and FDA have decided that they are sick of bogus cancer cures, and have sued a handful of companies.


And more important, are they going to go after more snake oil salesmen? There is nothing special about the companies the FTC is going after. They make the usual bogus claims—“our particular magic herbs detoxify, boost immunity, and cure cancer.”

Hopefully, ChrisH will weigh in on some of the legal issues, but one of the interesting facets of these cases bears directly on the Quack Miranda Warning. According to ABC News:

In a May 27, 2008, the FDA acknowledged that Spohn had “attempted to disclaim” some of the statements about products sold by the company, Herbs for Cancer.

The FDA noted that the site contained the message: “Disclaimer: The FTC and FDA require us to place this disclaimer here, please read. Herbs for cancer are not intended to cure, treat, or diagnose your illness.”

In the letter, the FDA told Spohn, “However, untrue or misleading information in one part of your site will not be mitigated by inclusion of such a “disclaimer.’”

Wow. I have regularly complained that snake oil salesmen are allowed to operate unmolested by simply giving the completely disingenuous disclaimer. Is this a sign that the Quack Miranda Warning may someday lose it’s magical power of protection?

Another fun piece of the FTC complaint is “the letter”—the FTC is requiring the cancer herb quack to send “an exact copy” of a letter to all customers:

Dear [Recipient]:

Our records show that you bought [name of products] from our website www.HerbsForCancer.com. We are writing to tell you that the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) has found that our advertising claims for these products were false or unsubstantiated, and has issued an Order prohibiting us from making those claims in the future. The Order entered against us also requires that we send you the following information about the scientific evidence on these products.

Very little scientific research has been done concerning the above noted products as a treatments or cures for cancer in humans. The scientific studies that have been done do not demonstrate that these products, or the ingredients in these products, are effective when used as treatments for cancer.

It is very important that you talk to your doctor or health care provider before using any alternative or herbal product, including the products named above. Speaking with your doctor is important to make sure that all aspects of your medical treatment work together. Things that seem safe, such as certain foods, herbs, or pills, may interfere or affect your cancer or other medical treatment, or other medicines you might be taking. Some herbs or other complementary or alternative treatments may keep your medicines from doing what they are supposed to do, or could be harmful when taken with other medicines or in high doses. It also is very important that you talk to your doctor or health care provider before you decide to take any alternative or herbal product, including the products named above, instead of taking conventional cancer treatments that have been scientifically proven to be safe and effective in humans.

If you would like further information about complementary and alternative treatments for cancer, the following Internet web sites may be helpful:

1.The National Cancer Institute: www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq; or

2.The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicines:


You also can contact the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER or 1-800-422-6237.

Herbs For Cancer

I love that. I really do. Unfortunately, people who have already “drunk the Kool-Aid” (yes, I know, “Flav-R-Ade”, or in this case, tea) may fall prey to various false ideas encouraged by their cult leader (FDA-Big Pharma conspiracy; “hey, it’s working for me”; “what could it hurt?”).

And since this particular complaint and news story is about a particular altmed cult leader, let’s see how she responded to the charges (hint: she pulls out her well-worn set of the Denialists’ Deck of Cards).

Mary Spohn, who sells the magic teas, starts with the “freedom of choice” gambit:

“I’m not against chemo and radiation,” she said. “I just don’t think that should be our only choice.”

I love the false dichotomy: “chemo and radiation…our only choice.” Cancer therapy is much more complicated than she would have us believe. The real choice is science-based therapy vs. magical herbs.

“If we lose this, then we have lost a major battle, and our only recourse will be to take drug-based modalities in treating any kind of disease. They will literally take our right away to buy a vitamin out of the store,” she said.

ZOMG! The government is taking away our rights!!!11!!

Which rights are we really talking about here? The right of consumers to be defrauded? The right of charlatans to make false claims?

I hope that this move represents a start, not a isolated event. You will probably hear a noisy schrei from the quacks complaining of oppression, conspiracies, etc. You can bet that Gary Null and Joe Mercola will give it some press. But the only thing being lost is the ability of crooks to defraud vulnerable individuals.

I’ll drink to that (but not the magic tea).


  1. “…They will literally take our right away to buy a vitamin out of the store,” she said.

    Why am I not surprised that these people don’t even have the critical thinking skills to distinguish between prosecuting fraud and banning magic pills altogether? They can sell them to their heart’s content, as long as they don’t lie about their effects.

  2. I love it. Great post.

    In my opinion, the quack miranda does not immunize a provider from legal liability. Under well developed caselaw, the FTC/Attorneys General look at the totality of the advertisement. If overall, it says X, it cannot disclaim X by saying Y in small print. So, the overall impression of the advertisement, viewed from the perspective of a reasonable consumer, is what controls.

  3. Every time I see such a pious statement about medical wisdom, I want to shout what doctor? The last time I spoke to a doctor in a professional capacity was in 1988, over a thousand miles away. And it was a pediatrician who spoke mostly to my parents.

    Talking about “my doctor” makes about as much sense as talking about “my grand piano” or “my submarine.” I don’t have one, nor will I be getting one in the forseeable future.

    A prescription drug is a drug that I can’t use, unless I smuggle it in from overseas. (And that’s a slow, tedious process that’s not much use in an emergency.)

    Personally, I use veterinary drugs a fair bit. E.g. I could use a tetanus booster, so I just need to go to Tractor Supply Co. and pick up SKU #2200258, “Tetanus Toxoid, 1 Dose, Fort Dodge Animal Health”, and give myself 0.5 ml IM. The only downside is that I really should have epinephrine available and I’ll have to make do with Primatene Mist.

  4. w.

  5. I’m pretty sure he’s smuggling *something* from overseas! 😉

  6. This reminds me of a stupid puff piece the Australian “news” (and I use the term lightly) program A Current Affair ran recently:

    A consumer-first magazine called Choice conducted a double-blind study on several popular brands of glucosamine supplements, and found that regular aspirin was a more effective treatment for arthritis.

    So, what did ACA do? Why, what any program funded by advertising dollars would do:

    Have the company that manufacturers the glucosamine tablets state that the study is flawed and then asked people on the street how glucosamine had worked for them.


  7. “our only recourse will be to take drug-based modalities in treating any kind of disease”

    Holy Crap!
    People looking for cures will have to buy actual evidence-backed medicines.

  8. Sorry, was I unclear. I was going on a tangential rant in response to phrases in that letter like “It is very important that you talk to your doctor or health care provider before using any alternative or herbal product, including the products named above.”

    Such advice tends to annoy me. Since I’m my health care provider, could I have a little more detail about the alleged benefits of talking to myself?

  9. Anonymous

    I surf a lot on Internet looking for health scams, you make a great point. very inspiring post.

  10. I surf a lot on Internet looking for health scams. You make a great point, very inpsiring post.

  11. minimalist

    could I have a little more detail about the alleged benefits of talking to myself?

    You might find out that your interlocutor is a dumbshit?

  12. minimalist FTW!

  13. Marilyn Mann

    Great post. LOL.

  14. This is great news– seriously great!!! 🙂

    Back in my altie days, I was totally taken in by the “THEY’LL BE TAKING OUR VITAMIN PILLS OUT OF OUR VERY MOUTHS NEXT, ZOMGWTFBBQ!!!!!!” rhetoric. I thought the FDA was impinging upon our personal freedoms to take whatever herbs and supplements we thought best for ourselves! How little I understood the harm in cancer quackery!!! I’m so glad the FTC is going after these people!

  15. Since I’m my health care provider

    So how would you pull off certain regular checkups for middle-aged males?

  16. StuV:

    If you’re willing to undergo the procedure without sedation, you could always walk a trusted friend through it…

  17. Denice Walter

    More anti-woo law: next week the NJ state assembly will vote to limit nutritional counseling to dietitions licensed by the state. So that friendly yoga teacher, that concerned vitamin store salesperson, and the nice DC/personal trainer (who hands out woo doo-ish nutritional info to perspective clients at the gym) will hopefully be discouraged.Of course, a group of “concerned citizens”(read vitamin store owners ,herbalists, etc.)and their lawyers are planning a protest for “health freedom”.They defeated a previous attempt by the state in 2002.BTW Null( of course) supports them ,although he claims he IS a licensed dietition and not affected!

  18. Um, why don’t you have a doctor? You obviously have access to information technology and needles and syringes (or does the stuff from the vet comes pre-packaged?) Even if you think you’re really smart, a doctor is a good double-check. And you can still go to the tractor store and buy whatever you’d like.

    Also, for this post, the people who are getting these letters have cancer. People who have cancer generally have seen a doctor, if only to get a cancer diagnosis.

  19. I can kind of understand, though, not having a doctor if you’re basically healthy. Each year I go in and get a standard panel of tests done and everything’s basically all right, and that’s it. I have three or four quirks about my health that I’d really like to ask a doctor about, but I don’t really feel comfortable asking. (I would google first, but it’s hard to search for symptoms because I don’t know the appropriate descriptive terminology.) The one time I tried, about the fact that my ears popped whenever I exercised and it made exercise unpleasant, the doctor just kind of looked at me funny and said something like, “I don’t know. What do you want me to do about it?” I don’t want to bug the doctor, who obviously has more important patients than a healthy, non-pregnant 24 year old. But, if I didn’t need to get pap smears done, I could probably go pay for blood tests out of pocket, monitor my own health, only see a doctor when something’s wrong, and derive the same level of health care as I’m getting now. A doctor has never told me that something was wrong without me asking him first to look for the cause of a symptom. Aren’t I basically self-monitoring? Isn’t that half of what PWT is doing?

  20. minimalist

    Aren’t I basically self-monitoring? Isn’t that half of what PWT is doing?

    Not going to the doctor when you’re not sick is fine.

    Living without health insurance, if that’s what you’re implying, well, uh, that’s kinda risky, but it’s your life.

    Now, prescribing unmonitored amounts of cow-drugs and jamming them into your body… well, I think that right there was the choo-choo crazy-train whistle that was turning everyone’s head.

  21. minimalist

    Actually, I should take that back: there’s plenty of shit that doctors can catch before you “feel” sick, so, uh, at least get a checkup every few years.

  22. @minimalist: I guess my point was that for me, a doctor hasn’t ever diagnosed anything he/she wasn’t looking for, either directly because I complained or because I went through standard, recommended-for-everyone screening. And when I complain, the complaint is dismissed, because I’ve always been healthy. But how long is my luck going to hold up? I do go to doctors, but I understand why people don’t when a lot of the time, it doesn’t appear like they do anything you couldn’t do yourself.

    @re: crazy cow-drugs. I’m not sure how veterinary drugs are regulated, but it doesn’t seem to me like there’s necessarily a lower quality there. If you know you need a certain drug and if you’re informed enough to get exactly that drug from the vet store, adjust the concentration and dosing, and effectively administer the drug, I don’t see why that’s inherently more dangerous than getting the drug from the pharmacy. (OK, you need to be pretty informed to do that, but you don’t need formal training in medicine.) The crazy is in thinking that you can self-diagnose and formulate your own treatment plan.

  23. minimalist

    The crazy is in thinking that you can self-diagnose and formulate your own treatment plan.

    Bingo. The use of veterinary drugs just pushed the ridiculousness over the top, so I felt it was my duty as an internet jackass to emphasize that.

  24. Veterinary drugs? What a wimp. *REAL* men grind their own antibiotics from random mold samples, and suffer the occasional hallucination with a smile!*

    *Real men are, apparently, idiots. Do not try this at home. Do not try this at a friend’s house. Just don’t do this, people. It’s really a stupid idea. Just a joke, really.

  25. I am guessing that perhaps PWT lives in an area where there are either no docs to be had, at all, or the nearest one is 100 miles away, or else lives in a state where s/he is excluded from the possibility of health insurance–there are many states like this where insurers can cherry-pick only the very healthiest people, and they exclude an astonishingly wide range of “pre-existing conditions,” such as if you even went to the doctor for a flu shot three years ago. Many parts of the US are no better than Third World countries when it comes to medical care. The Appalachians and much of the Midwest leap to mind. There are also many states where the public health depts. which are supposed to provide a modicum of preventative care in the form of vaccines and so forth are under-funded or run by idiots, such that they don’t have adequate supplies of anything and are only open for two hours on Wednesday afternoon. There are also more urban areas in the US where there exist doctors, but very few accept new patients and none accept patients without insurance, yet many people are excluded from having insurance by a pre-existing condition (such as having been to the doc for so much as a flu shot three years ago). So, patients who do not have access to a doctor for whatever reason, and there are many millions of ’em, are thus given the choice between attempting to self-medicate, or woo.

    One more reason to support nationalized health care, really.

  26. Whoops, sorry about the redundancy there. That’ll teach me to post at 5am.

  27. To clarify, there are two broad reasons to see your doctor—for evaluation and treatment of a problem, and for prevention/screening.

    Screening and prevention is important, although for young people, we’re not so sure how often a physical is necessary.

    I think you’d rather have your doctor figure out you have diabetes before you come to see him for the complications.

  28. Thank you Lora. You saved me from, after reading “ Living without health insurance, if that’s what you’re implying, well, uh, that’s kinda risky, but it’s your life,” having to grasp minimalist by the shirtfront and hiss through my raggedy old teeth that It’s not generally a choice!, followed by some unseemly epithets.

    My sister tried to get medical insurance for ten years before she died. She’d had cervical cancer and was found completely free of any cancer… on autopsy. If she’d had insurance I am absolutely sure she’d have had less careless, dismissive medical care and seen a doc more often than she felt she was able to afford it as a self-pay. And the infection that threw her into that liver-failure cascade wouldn’t have happened, or would have been stopped before she crashed and died of it.

    Who the hell sends a patient home with a self-cath kit and no instruction about how to use it?? Just for a start on the hideous list.

  29. minimalist

    No need for violence, buddy. I was specifically referring to Lora’s hypothetical situation. She said “I could probably go pay for blood tests out of pocket”, which in the context of the rest of her post implied voluntarily going off insurance.

  30. This is a really important ruling – it will be interesting to see what goes on here in the UK in this area. I help to write Cancer Research UK’s science blog, and you’ve inspired us to cover it too:

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