The term "quackery" refers to the promotion of a medical remedy that is falseor unproven in order to earn a profit. The word derives from the term quacksalver, literally someone who boasts or quacks about his salves. Promoters of quackery, known as quacks, may not deliberately intend to deceive customers. In fact, they may genuinely believe that their products are worthwhile. However, good intentions don't make products effective for the purposes forwhich they are advertised, and Americans waste billions of dollars annuallyon false or unproven medical remedies.
Advertising and promotion are key ingredients of quackery. Quack remedies areavailable for virtually any condition from which a person may suffer, as well as a few that don't even exist. Promoters are expert at tapping into the normal concerns that people have about their health and their appearance. The products they offer range from the useless to the dangerous. Even more seriousare the quack remedies that offer false hope to desperate people who may besuffering from serious illness such as cancer or AIDS.
Medical quackery may involve drugs, devices or lifestyle changes. Some misguided quacks fully believe in what they are doing; others are cynical manipulators out to make a quick profit. Quacks may hold respected credentials (even though they have abandoned the rigorous standards of their fields) or they mayhave fake degrees from mail-order "diploma mills."
There are some hints that quackery may be involved. Promotions using adjectives like "secret," "proven," "miracle," "breakthrough," and "overnight" are often suspect. Many quacks claim they are fighting against a conspiracy of doctors who are unwilling to acknowledge new treatments. They may claim their products provide a complete cure for a wide variety of problems without any sideeffects.
Quackery is quackery whether it's a snake oil salesman touting cures from theback of a horse-drawn wagon or a sophisticated marketer hawking ploys over the Internet. In any case, it's certainly not new. The first fake medicies were imported by early settlers from England, where royal "patents" (thus the term "patent medicine") had long been granted for all sorts of quackery. In 1708, the English potion known as Daffy's Elixir Salutis became the first patentmedicine to be advertised in America.
In America, wily early colonists were quick to jump on the quackery bandwagonwith their own cure-alls, and the gullible public fell for these new miracles. Wandering medicine men displayed Copperplates of Genuineness signed by "doctors" who had prepared the formulas, along with glowing testimonials from folks who had been supposedly cured. Tuscarora Rice in 1715 was the first American-made patent medicine. By the late 1700s, quackery was in full swing in the United States as Christian Kratzenstein was zapping patients with electricshocks and sparks to "cure" their rheumatism, fevers and plague. In 1797, theTractor Pull invented by Dr. Elisha Perkins used metal rods to "pull" the pain and disease out of patients' bodies. By the next year, Franz Anton Mesmerbegan treating Parisian patients with "animal magnetism" and "magnetic fluid." One of the cleverest quack medicines was a tonic that guaranteed the birthof a son -- with a money-back provision in the event of a girl. If a girl wasborn, the money was refunded; if a boy was born -- well, it worked!
Dr. Franz Joseph Gall popularized phrenology (the "science" of diagnosing character by the bumps on a person's skull) in the early 1800s. People rushed toget their phrenology certificates to frame and hang on the wall. By the 1840s, water cures became popular. People sat in vats of cold water or lay wrapped in wet sheets to cure a wide range of illnesses.
In the mid-to-late 1800s, patent medicines such as Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound for female complaints (18% alcohol), Hamlin's Wizard Oil, were big sellers. Bogus "Indian" potions such as Kickapoo Indian Sagwa, Seminole Cough Balsam, Comanche Blood Strength-O, and Ka-ton-ka, were hawked in colorfulcircus-like medicine shows.
By the 1900s, charlatans began turning to machines and devices for quack cures. The Electropoise by Hercules Sanche was said to be able to restore the body's vital electric energy. (It turned out to be an empty metal cylinder witha string attached). In the 1930s, goat gland transplants by John Romulus Brinkley was guaranteed to cure male impotence.
Ever since the beginning of quackery, advertisement and promotion were of utmost importance. To boost sales, most quacks called themselves "doctors" -- sothat by 1775, America had 3,500 doctors (only 400 of whom had actual university medical degrees). In the 1880s, diploma mills began cranking out "doctor"certificates without requiring the recipients to have the slightest bit of medical instruction. One of the earliest charlatans to use quackery devices was a real medical doctor, however: Dr. Elisha Perkins of Norwich, CT, a highly-respected doctor until he started saying he could cure disease with metal rods. In 1796, he was granted a patent for his homemade "Perkins' Metallic Tractors." When the 3-inch-long metal rods were rubbed over the diseased portionof the body, they supposedly "pulled out" the disease.
All of these devices and claims were perfectly legal at the time, because medical treatment and equipment in the United States was not regulated by law until 1906.
People who purchase quack remedies may be fooled, but they aren't fools. Quackery succeeds because the promises are appealing, and they include impressivescientific language. A person might need a background in medicine, biochemistry, and physics in order to determine that certain promotions are based on misrepresented science. Promoters of quackery also misuse science by using preliminary studies to back up their claims and by selectively quoting from scientific sources. They may say they are ahead of their time and proclaim theirproduct as a breakthrough. Genuine breakthroughs are rigorously studied and questioned by medical experts before they may be marketed. Promoters may complain that the medical establishment refuses to test their remedies. However, the burden of proof should rest with the person or company making the claim. The use of testimonials from satisfied customers contributes to the credibility of the advertising. However, the customer has no way of knowing whether thetestimonial is real or not. Even if the testimonial is genuine, the resultsmay or may not be due to the remedy being promoted.
Potential customers may believe that consumer protection laws prohibit quackery. Unfortunately, the laws are inadequate. The Food and Drug Administration(FDA) can take action when a food, drug, cosmetic, or medical device is promoted using false information. The FDA can also step in if a product is shown to be dangerous. The Federal Trade Commission can act in cases of false or misleading advertising. The U.S. Postal Service may be involved in cases in which the mail is used to defraud someone. Unfortunately, the three agencies arehampered by small staffs and too many demands on their resources. Promoters can dodge charges by using vague wording in their advertising and by plainly stating that their products haven't been approved by the FDA. Customers who have been duped may be reluctant to complain, so it is difficult to build a case against promoters of quackery.