Jan 10 2008

Back When Quacks Were Quacks

Take a look at this educational video from 1959 (and thanks to Jeff Jones for sending me this link). The film is wonderfully campy – a perfect example of the genre from the 1950’s. I love these glimpses at history. They take us out of our narrow temporal perspective, the snap shot of time in which we currently exist, and provide a useful perspective on where we have been as a guide to where we are. I have a few observations.

The video shows that almost 50 years ago, a half a century, cure-all scams were no different than the ones we have around today. The script hasn’t changed – natural remedies from an exotic part of the world being sold with astounding anecdotes. They also mention that testimonials are worthless – they can be easily faked, and even when sincere they represent nothing but wishful thinking, even by those who later died of the illness of which they claimed they were cured.

The film also correctly identifies the primary problem with worthless treatments, even those that cause no direct harm – namely distracting people from real treatments and delaying effective treatment.

A couple of things have changed since the making of this film. The most obvious is the shameless and direct fashion that the actors talk about “quacks.” There is no bowing to misguided political correctness or false open-mindedness. That was a time when quacks were quacks, before con artists and health frauds became savvy enough to hide behind conspiracy theories, cries for health care freedom, and appeals to post-modernist anti-scientific jargon.

The other obvious difference between the world of this film and the modern world is the internet. The film talks about using the “post-office department” to track and prosecute fraud. This is still relevant today to some extent, but the internet has provided a venue for selling snake oil that bypasses the post-office and allows direct access to potential customers without committing mail fraud. There is no equivalent “internet fraud” and no internet department of the federal government. So combating false advertising is left to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which was around back then also, but now is overwhelmed and underfunded – not up to the herculean task of fighting fraud on the internet.

I am not nostalgic for those simpler days – the genie of health fraud is out of the bottle, and with our modern communication, openness, and freedoms come greater complexity and responsibility. There is no going back. But it is helpful to see from where we have come. It gives us a little insight into our current plight. The con artists and snake-oil salesmen are selling the same false hope they were 50 years ago, they have just slickened up their act.

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