Quackery Targets Teens
Source: U. S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA Consumer, February 1988, Revised April 1990
Quackery, an age-old business, costs Americans billions of dollars each year and immeasurable losses suffered from harmful products and delayed medical treatment. The quack’s victims are usually thought of as the aged or chronically ill.
But quacks are quick to spot new markets, so it’s not surprising that they have discovered teenagers. These youths and their impatience with the blossoming process are fertile ground for quacks. Teenagers are ready to experiment with products that promise to speed their development and ease growing pains.
And many of these junior and senior high school age children have money enough to do the experimenting. In fact, a study by Teenage Research Unlimited revealed that 27.6 million teenagers spent an average of $93 a month on personal items in 1989 for a total of nearly $31 billion.
Further, in families in which both parents work, teens take on more of the family shopping responsibilities. The U.S. Labor Department reports that as of March 1988, 62.4 percent of families with teenagers had two working parents. And a 1987 report by Teen Research Unlimited showed that teens do the shopping in 70 percent of the households with working mothers.
These young shoppers often have access to mom or pop’s credit card. And, like their parents, they are buying more through the mail, a medium that offers a cloak of anonymity under which quacks thrive.
The teen years often insecure years, filled with questions like: “Am I beautiful (or handsome)?” “Will my breasts ever develop?” “Shouldn’t I be more muscular?” “Am I too fat?” “Would a tan give me more sex appeal?”
Quacks love such questions. And they’re ready with answers that have been–according to them–“overlooked or ignored by the established scientific community.”
Time is of such essence to the young that they grasp at straws and don’t recognize the quack’s deceptions for what they really are.
Take a look at some of the advertisements in teen magazines. There’s a “space age diet” that allows you to “eat all day and still lose weight,” a beauty cream that will ensure “gorgeous, proportioned breasts,” and a pill to provide a tan overnight. Sound unlikely? Impossible is a better word. But, fond of superlatives and driven by desire, teenagers are ready to believe such ads.
Here are some of the dubious products that teenagers today are asked to believe in:
For decades, millions of dollars have been spent on devices, creams and lotions advertised as breast developers. All wasted. There is no device or system of exercise that will increase the size of the breasts. At best, devices promoted as breast developers merely strengthen and develop the muscles that support the breasts, and exercising these muscles will not appreciably increase breast size.
Creams and lotions advertised as breast developers don’t work either. Some contain the hormone estrogen. Estrogen can increase breast size, but in order to be sold without a prescription these products must contain such a small amount of the hormone that its effect is insignificant. (Estrogen is used in birth control pills and to treat symptoms of menopause. FDA approval for estrogen does not include use for breast development.)
The only proven method of increasing breast size is breast augmentation surgery, which carries some risks and is hardly recommended for teenagers.
Teenagers–especially girls–are not exempt from the American penchant for dieting. One expert says that as many as three- fourths of high school girls are on a diet at any one time. Writing in the May-June 1987 issue of Nutrition Today, Dr. Kelly Brownell of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine said that some children begin dieting as early as the fourth grade.
Those figures may startle some people, but not the quacks. They know them well and have pounced on that audience, offering “magical” diets and pills to keep the pounds off. Most of the diets and virtually all of the pills are worthless; some are even dangerous. At times, some diets will achieve a temporary weight loss that is usually unrelated to the “magical” food or pill.
The dieting craze may be particularly questionable for adolescents, since a well-balanced diet is vital during the teen years when the body goes through dramatic change and growth.
Depending on the ingredients, some pills promoted for weight loss can cause side effects such as nervousness, nausea and insomnia, and can also be addictive.
The recognized active ingredient in most nonprescription diet pills is either phenylpropanolamine (PPA) or benzocaine. The effectiveness of these two ingredients for weight loss has yet to be determined by FDA. However, too much PPA has been associated with elevated blood pressure. Benzocaine is supposed to work by numbing the inside of the mouth to make food less appetizing.
Most weight-loss products sold as part of a diet-and-pill plan are harmless. The products don’t work, but the plan may. Of course, the plan would work just as well without the product, which is nothing more than a psychological crutch.
Some devices are also promoted for weight loss. Electrical muscle stimulators, for example, have a legitimate use for physical therapy treatment, but FDA has had to take a number of such devices off the market because they were promoted for weight loss and “body toning.” These stimulators can be dangerous when used incorrectly. Hazards include electrical shocks and burns.
Body wraps are another favorite gimmick of the quacks. They’re touted as a means of “burning fat.” The wraps are worn around part or all of the body, sometimes preceded by the application of a cream or lotion. Temporary weight loss may occur as the result of sweating and loss of water in the tissues, but when the water content of the tissue returns to normal, the “lost” weight reappears. The wraps do not “burn” or dissolve fat. Furthermore, experts consider them dangerous because they can cause severe dehydration and circulatory problems.
There are no magic foods, pills, wraps, diets or wands for losing weight. The only way to lose weight is to consistently eat fewer calories than the body needs and uses. But teenagers should be cautioned about excessive dieting. Their growing bodies can’t tolerate the nutrient loss that comes with eating too little.
Steroids & growth hormone
“Quackery. That is the bane of sports medicine. We’ve rid ourselves of some of the worst but there are still many people handing out get-good-quick pills, touting medicines that send blue sparks and make big muscles, or advising athletes to drink superduper seaweed extracts.”
–Dr Daniel F. Hanley, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, as quoted in Death in the Locker Room.
Our sports-loving nation loves a winner, and it’s fair to say that most of the 5 million boys and girls who compete in high school sports love to win. Some of them will go to great lengths to do so. That may mean using performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids and human growth hormone.
Anabolic steroids–compounds similar to the male hormone testosterone–are too often used by athletes, both boys and girls, to build muscle. They are also used by young men who just want to look better. They are prescription drugs, but most of those who use them obtain them illegally, often from the black market. Steroids have a lot of unwanted side effects–that’s why they are supposed to be sold only by prescription. They may well build muscle, but it’s a losing proposition, because their use–particularly in the large doses that athletes take–can stunt growth, lead to cancer, ruin the liver, and bring on other complications, including enlarged breasts in boys. For girls, the side effects include developing masculine traits that may be irreversible.
Black-market steroids often are produced in another country or by clandestine domestic manufacturers under questionable conditions and may be contaminated. The quacks have also moved in with phony steroids and phony pills that they say–falsely–will counter some of the side effects of steroids.
Earlier this year, FDA warned that a counterfeit version of the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin, or HCG, was being sold to weight lifters and other athletes. The bogus hormones were contaminated with a substance that causes infections and fever.
A black market has also sprung up for human growth hormone. This prescription drug is legitimately given to children who suffer from pituitary dwarfism or growth hormone deficiency, but it, too, has dangerous side effects. Nevertheless, athletes seeking to benefit from added growth are buying the hormone on the black market. Quacks are also marketing “growth tablets” that, in fact, contain no hormones or any other ingredients that can promote growth.
Tanning & tanning pills
Tanning is never harmless, regardless of the source; the sun, a sunlamp, a tanning bed or a pill. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or other sources leads to premature aging of the skin. It is also the number one cause of skin cancer.
Many teenagers get their tans a tanning parlors, where they may be told that the type of ultraviolet radiation from the lamps will not be harmful. That’s not true. Ultraviolet radiation from any source can be harmful.
Other youths may turn to tanning pills. But they’re not safe either. They generally contain a color additive that has not been approved by FDA for coloring the body. Advertisement claim that the pills produce”a rich, golden-bronze natural-looking tan that make one look healthy, energetic, and attractive al year. But the pills actually produce a distinct orange tinge on the skin. The pills may also leave fatty deposits in the blood, liver and skin, and on the eye’s retina, where they may interfere with night vision. Further, the tan the pills produce is on protection against sunburn.
Other youths may turn to tanning pills. But they’re not safe either. They generally contain a color additive that has not been approved by FDA for coloring the body. Advertisements claim that the pills produce a “rich, golden-bronze, natural-looking tan” that makes one look “healthy, energetic, and attractive” all year. But the pills actually produce a distinct orange tinge on the skin. The pills may also leave fatty deposits in the blood, liver and skin, and on the eye’s retina, where they may interfere with night vision. Further, the “tan” the pills produce is no protection against sunburn.
Hair removal & growth
The only effective way to remove hair permanently is with electrolysis a process by which hair roots are destroyed with an electrified needle. Electrolysis should only be performed by a physician or professional electrologist, according to the American Medical Association (AMA). While it is safe when done correctly, it can be tedious, painful and expensive, the AMA adds. Scarring may result and regrowth is possible.
Effective means of temporarily removing hair include shaving, tweezing, waxing, and using cream or lotion depilatories. But FDA cautions that there is no risk-free method of removing hair. Waxing for example can be painful, and creams can cause rashes and swelling.
There is limited good news about removing hair, however. According to the AMA hair removal does not make renewed growth thicker or stiffer, nor does it quicken regrowth.
While girls struggle to remove hair, some teenage boys worry that they won’t be able to keep theirs. Since most baldness is hereditary, young men may take a look at their long-since bald fathers and fear that they will soon be watching the tops of their heads get smoother. There’s currently no solution to this dilemma, a fact that bothers quacks not at all. The health fraud artists are ready with a variety of cures for baldness and their intended victims include those worried youngsters.
The would be hair restorers are trafficking these days in a drug that has shown some ability to stimulate hair growth. That drug is minoxidil, which is used to treat high blood pressure. Publicity about the prescription drug’s link to hair growth has laid just enough ground work for the quacks to capitalize on. However minoxidil has yet to be approved by FDA for growing hair. So there remains no product available that will grow hair, despite quack ads to the contrary.
The widespread use of illegal drugs among teenagers has helped generate a market for fake drugs. These lookalike drugs are intentionally made to look like amphetamines, barbiturates or other often-abused drugs. They are sold on the street and by mail order, and the seller often implies that they are the illegal drugs they resemble.
The lookalikes generally contain decongestants, caffeine, and other stimulants in what FDA has called dangerous illogical combinations. Some contain alarmingly high doses of one ingredient. When taken in excess or mixed with alcohol, the lookalikes have caused strokes and death. They are extremely dangerous when mixed with, or replaced by real uppers or downers.
The availability and use of lookalikes make it harder for health professionals and law enforcement officials to combat the problem of illegal drug use. The AMA points out the following problems caused by lookalikes:
- School children and others who don’t normally abuse drugs are told that the lookalikes are okay to use because they are legal and safe (in fact they are neither).
- Lookalike drugs may make youngsters believe that the illegal drugs they mimic aren’t as potent and dangerous as they really are.
- Traditional drug abuse education programs are hampered by the wide availability of the imitation drugs.
- Physicians and poison centers are deceived by the fake drugs, which makes drug-related diagnoses difficult.
- The lookalikes make it even more difficult for law enforcement officials to stop illegal drug traffic.
Most states have banned the manufactured and marketing of look-a-likes, and the federal government has taken action against some manufacturers. But the availability of look-alike drugs is still a threat to the health and safety of teenagers.
It is during the teenage years that people start to become serious consumers, and there’s no better time to learn how to avoid quackery. Here are some tips:
- Be wary if immediate, effortless or guaranteed results are promised.
- Look for telltale words and phrases such as “breakthrough,” “miracle,” “secret remedy,” “exclusive,” and “clinical studies prove that…”
- Beware of promotions for a single product claimed to be effective for a wide variety of ailments.
- Don’t forget that, unlike scientists and health professionals, quacks do not subject their products to the scrutiny of scientific research. The quack simply thrusts a product onto the market in order to get your money.
- Be cautious of money-back guarantees, for a guarantee is only as good as the company that backs it.
This article was prepared jointly by FDA and the Council of Better Business Bureaus.