Oct 25 2007

Zero Effect Smoke

There are countless quack devices and snake oil remedies out there. They are proliferating on the internet like a virulent virus, feeding off of desperation and scientific illiteracy, and largely unhindered by ineffective regulations. In fact (to continue my infectious metaphor) they have evolved effective resistance to the weak regulatory antibiotics that have been prescribed. There are far too many specific products for me to write about them all, but occasionally I decide to pick on one.

A new product recently caught my attention – Zerosmoke, a device that claims it can help smokers quit their addiction. In fact their advertising claims an 80% success rate. They give no references to any published evidence (or even in-house evidence, as worthless as that is) for their claims. The device is simply two magnets to be placed on either side of the ear, so that they stick together and provide pressure to the ear. How does this work? Their advertising states:

Zerosmoke® is a revolutionary treatment that uses two Auricular Therapy 24K gold coated magnets. When positioned opposite one another on a designated point of the ear, they exert prolonged, programmed, stimulating pressure that activates the neurotransmitters that eradicates the desire to smoke.

Wow, sounds scientific. It mentions neurotransmitters and everything. Of course this is absolute rubbish. There is no scientific basis for the notion that any particular point on the ear affects brain function, nicotine addiction, or the desire to smoke. But the producers of Zerosmoke did not make up this nonsense by themselves, this is based upon the idea of using acupressure on specific auricular points to aid in smoking cessation. There is even a literature on the topic, which shows very similar findings to the acupuncture literature. As this review states, studies show that there is no difference in effect if the acupressure is given in the “correct” location vs the “incorrect” or sham location. There are mixed results in terms of any acupressure vs other therapies, but of course this difference has not been blinded. The only variable that was blinded, real vs sham, showed no difference. To me this pattern is most compatible with no effect.

The advertising for this product also uses the typical marketing strategies of these dubious treatments. They claim that their product is “all natural.” What does that even mean with respect to magnets? Are there unnatural magnets? Is it natural for humans to have their brain chemistry altered by applying pressure to the ear?

Their website also declares that, “Zerosmoke N.A. is FDA listed and register.” (sic) This is probably true, but it is likely to be very misleading. Technically these magnets are a medical device, so they have to be registered as such with the FDA. The only requirement of such devices is that they are safe for their intended use. Such registration in no way depends upon proving efficacy or the validity of any claims. But mentioning the FDA is likely to mislead the unwary into thinking that the claims are approved by the FDA, which they are not. At least they include on the website (tucked in unobtrusively at the bottom) the standard required disclaimer, “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

Sure, much of this falls under the standard ethics of the free market and the “let the buyer beware” standard. But deception and manipulation in marketing is especially bothersome when medical claims are involved. Even though Zerosmoke is not a drug, it seems to me that any medical claims made for it should first have to pass some standard of scientific evidence. I’m not saying the company has to spend tens of millions of dollars in research, but at the very least the FDA could review existing research (it already exists) to see if the claims are warranted. Something would be better than nothing, in my opinion. But the current regulations do not provide for this.

So for the time being we will continue to be overwhelmed by an ever expanding contagion of dubious health products, and the only defense is a healthy skepticism.

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