Beware of Health Scams

Published in Pawtucket Times, December 19, 2014

Like millions of older baby boomers and seniors, some nights you just can’t get to sleep. It’s very late and you begin channel surfing. Does this sound familiar? Many TV viewers may ultimately find themselves, usually from 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m., watching an infomercial announcer pitch a health product or service, always claiming your health will improve, or that the aging process can be stopped or reversed, if you just purchase that bottle of dietary supplements, weight loss product, baldness remedies or sexual enhancement supplements, that home exercise machine, even register for a memory improvement course. The lists of products pitched on these paid commercials are endless.

The Vancouver, BC-based International Council on Active Aging (ICAA), a nonprofit group that supports professionals who develop wellness facilities, programs and services for adults over 50, calls on older consumers to beware of false promises and products with little health benefit. “Unfortunately, as people over 50 pursue this goal, many succumb to what one industry insider calls graywashing – claims that chip away at older adults’ retirement nest eggs with dubious promises of renewed youth and health,” says Colin Milner, CEO and founder of ICAA, who coined the term, graywashing.

There is No Fountain of Youth

According to Milner, there is no shortcut to improving your health. “Yet, people spend billions of dollars a year on products that claim there is,” he observes. “Many products also say they will turn back time,” he says, noting that the research shows these claims to be unsubstantiated.

Milner points to a statement by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institute of Health, which states: Despite claims about pills or treatments that lead to endless youth, no treatment has been proven to slow or reverse the aging process.” Be aware, warns Milner, as health fraud scams are abundant.

According to NIA’s Age Page, “Beware of Health Scams,” health product scams offer viable “solutions that appear to be quick and painless.”

As to dietary and weight loss supplements, American consumers spend a small fortune on potions claiming to help shed pounds, many sold over the counter. Be careful. Some supplements contain hidden illegal drugs and other chemicals that could cause serious harm.

The NIA fact sheet also claims that most dietary supplements are not fully tested by the Federal Drug Administration, a federal agency charged with protecting the public’s health. In 2014, FDA issued 63 Warning letters to companies that cited unapproved or unsubstantiated claims, tainted products or other health-fraud-related violations.

So, think carefully before you purchase that item. It is important to talk with your physician before you begin taking a supplement or using a health product remedy.

The NIA Fact Sheet notes that arthritis remedies, using Magnets, copper bracelets, chemicals, special diets and electronic devices, oftentimes unproven, can be quite expensive, potentially harmful, and unlikely to help. There is no cure for some forms of arthritis and rest, exercise, heat and some drugs, are the best ways to control the painful symptoms.

Health scams oftentimes target very sick people, especially those afflicted with cancer, in an attempt to trick people who are desperate for any remedy they can find. Buzz words to beware of include: “quick fix,” “secret ingredient” or “scientific breakthrough,” says NIA’s Fact Sheet.

Furthermore, weight loss, sexual enhancement and bodybuilding “supplements” are especially suspect, too, warns the NIA Fact Sheet. Some vitamins may help, but some supplements can harm people taking certain medicines or with some medical conditions. In particular, avoid those supplements claiming to shrink tumors, solve impotence or cure Alzheimer’s. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s Disease at this time.

Milner urges older Americans not to be swayed by personal testimonials featuring “real people,” or “doctors,” often times played by actors who claim amazing cures. These testimonials are no substitute for real scientific studies, and can tip you off to a scam. In general, never purchase or start taking a medical treatment without first talking to your healthcare professional, particularly if you already take other prescribed drugs, recommends Milner.

Don’t Become a Victim of Scam

Be knowledgeable about the health care products you buy, suggests Milner, noting that the NIA Fact Sheet recommends that a person question what he or she sees or hears in ads or online. Always ask your physician, nurse, pharmacist or other healthcare provider about products you’re thinking of buying. Most important, avoid products that “promise a quick or painless cure.” Beware of claims that a health care product is made from a “special, secret or ancient formula” or it can “only be purchased from one company.”

Also, be wary if the infomercial claims the product can cure a wide variety of medical conditions or even successfully treats a devastating disease like Alzheimer’s or chronic arthritis. Put your credit card away and hang of the phone if you are required to make an advance payment or there is a very limited supply of the product.

“Science may be getting closer to a Fountain of Youth, says Milner, but, “we’re not there yet. “The pillars of healthy aging are simple. They include a sensible diet, regular exercise, good sleep habits, meaningful relationships, and engagement in life,”

A Final Note for Rhode Island’s AG…

The Consumer Protection Unit at the Office of Attorney General receives very few consumer complaints about deceptive health and beauty products, because most of these products are regulated on the federal level. The best advice they can offer consumers is to file a complaint with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB. Although these types of products are not regulated by individual states, and therefore the Attorney General has no jurisdiction over the sale of such products, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin reminds consumers that the age old tip applies when considering a purchase, “if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.”

One way consumers can protect themselves, says Kilmartin, is to “ask for medical documentation backing up the claims and to ask and understand the refund policies before making a purchase. Another way to protect yourself is to pay by credit card, not debit card. Many credit card companies will allow you to dispute payment if the product or service doesn’t match up to its claims.”

For more information about the National Council on Active Aging go to http://www.icaa.cc/.

FDA s created a new website (www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm278980.htm) to help consumers protect themselves from fraudulent health products and schemes.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

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E-cigarette Legislation to Get Make Over

Published in Pawtucket Times, May 3, 2013

Just weeks ago, health advocacy organizations found themselves in an awkward, uncomfortable situation at the Rhode Island General Assembly. Although they supported the stated intent of House and Senate bills (H 5876 and S 622) that blocked the sale of electronic cigarettes (or e-cigarettes) to minors, they were forced to oppose these legislative proposals because of troubling provisions they believe were embedded within these bills.

When introducing his Senate proposal, e-cigarettes, says Senate Majority Leader Dominick J. Ruggerio, are proof that not all technological advances are good things. This led the Senator, representing Providence and North Providence, to become the Senate’s lead sponsor. House Finance Committee Chair Helio Melo, whose legislative district covers East Providence, jumped in as prime sponsor in his chamber, because of his desire to get the debate started on this relatively new public health issue.

E-cigarettes contain nicotine, a highly addictive substance. According to the U.S. Federal Drug Administration, the safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes have not been fully studied, consumers of e-cigarette products currently have no way of knowing whether e-cigarettes are safe for their intended use, how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use, or if there are any benefits associated with using these products.

Additionally, it is not known if e-cigarettes may lead young people to try other tobacco products, including conventional cigarettes, which are known to cause disease and lead to premature death.

The FDA warns that more research needs to be done on the health risks of inhaling liquid nicotine, and has announced its intent to assert regulatory authority over electronic cigarettes.

New Technology in Smoking

Although the first patent on e-cigarettes was filed in 1963, the smoking device became readily available in the United States by 2007. E-cigarettes are electronic nicotine delivery systems. Often shaped like cigarettes or cigars, they deliver nicotine to a user in the form of vapor. E-cigarettes ordinarily consist of battery-operated heating elements and replaceable cartridges that contain nicotine or other substances, and an atomizer that, when heated, converts the contents of the cartridge into a vapor that a user inhales. The nicotine in these products is derived from tobacco, but unlike cigarettes and cigars, there is no tobacco in e-cigarettes, and hence no smoke.

Ruggerio noted that his legislative proposal would prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, along with expanding the statutory definition of “tobacco products” to include “tobacco-derived products” and “vapor products.” “Vapor products,” as included in these bills, would refer to any non-combustible tobacco-derived product containing nicotine, such as an electronic cigarette, that employs a mechanical heating element, battery or electronic circuit, regardless of shape or size that can be used to heat a liquid nicotine solution contained in a vapor cartridge. The term would not include any product regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

“Those who say these products are designed for adults who want to quit smoking real tobacco products are ignoring the fact they are marketed to be appealing to youngsters, offered in flavors such as bubblegum and chocolate,” observed Ruggerio. “Kids may see these as fun things, but as adults, we should know better and take action to keep our children safe.”

Health Advocates Rally to Oppose E-cigarette Proposal

At a first read, Director Karina Holyoak Wood, of the Rhode Island Tobacco Control Network (RITCN), saw the e-cigarette legislation proposal as positive step toward keeping the new smoking technology out of the hands of minors. However, once Wood, whose anti-smoking network includes 55 groups (including the American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids), looked over the bills she found it embedded with provisions that could potentially undermine future regulation of e-cigarettes and create regulatory loopholes.

Wood and colleagues discovered that the e-cigarette bill was being promoted by RJ Reynolds, a major tobacco company. She believed that while the legislative sponsors’ intent was to prohibit youth access to e-cigarettes, a laudable goal, she feared that RJ Reynolds might be utilizing the bill as “a Trojan horse to establish their own business agenda for this emerging and currently unregulated smoking device.”

Suspicions were confirmed, says Wood, when a lobbyist from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company came to the Ocean State to support Ruggerio’s and Melo’s e-cigarette bills at the Senate and House Finance Committee hearings on April 9 and April 23, respectively. She also became aware that similar legislative proposals were popping up all over the country, with the Winston-Salem, North Carolina tobacco company lobbying for their passage.

Wood, and 17 health advocacy organizations gave the bills the thumbs down at both panel hearings, while the tobacco industry endorsed the measure wholeheartedly.

In her written statement, Dr. Patricia Nolan, former director for the RI Health Department, who now co-chairs the RITCN’s Policy Committee, warned the Senate Finance Committee members that the bill would define “a ‘new’ tobacco product and exempt it from some of the controls that currently apply to all tobacco products. She charged that it would define these products in ways that actually might undermine Rhode Island’s ability to effectively regulate and control them.

According to Nolan, the bill’s definition of tobacco products may not include all e-cigarette and vapor products, leading to confusion. The new products regulated by laws concerning indoor air pollution and worker safety, she charged. “The safety of e-cigarettes and vapor devices for users or for indoor air quality is not known,” she said.

With the State scrambling for tax revenue, S 622 and H 5876 are silent on the issue of taxation of the e-cigarette product. “Having the definition in the tax section of the law could facilitate either taxing or exempting these ‘new’ products,” she told the House panel.

Nolan also noted that the bills create obstacles to enforcing penalties against merchants which violate the Youth Access Law by eliminating the requirement for courts to maintain records of penalties and fines imposed for violations not requiring that the Division of Taxation be notified about the disposition of the violation.

Other opponents and critics included the RI Department of Health’s Tobacco Control Program, the City of Providence and East Providence Prevention Coalition, and several local retailers, including Barrington-based, Ecig Shed came and Cigotine, LLC, in Providence, who came to share their concerns, both owners threatening to leave the Ocean State if the measure was enacted. Melo’s e-cigarette bill would greatly reduce their sales by restricting online sales of nicotine-containing products by treating the smoking device the same as traditional tobacco products, noted the business owners..

Specifically, e-cigarette bills would require a retailer conducting an online sale to obtain a copy of the buyer’s driver’s license along with a statement from the buyer affirming that they are the person pictured. The purchased product must be sent through a service that checks the ID of the buyer at delivery. Retailers would be required to perform this check every time a consumer places an order.

Finally, e-cigarette retailers in Rhode Island would be required to obtain a tobacco license and only buy their e-cigarettes from licensed wholesalers or distributors.

At the hearing, Lobbyist Jack Hogan, of R.J. Reynolds’s Tobacco Company, noted that his company’s support of the General Assembly’s cigarette legislation, and proposals being considered by other state legislatures, was to keep tobacco, including e-cigarette products out of the hands of minors under age 18. In countering the concerns of the health advocates, “there is no hidden agenda [in supporting the e-cigarette legislation]. It is the right thing to do,” he said.

Voices Heard

With the effective mobilization of health advocacy organizations to oppose H 5678 at the April 23 House Finance Committee, Wood and some of her network partners and the Health Department would meet one week later with Melo to discuss their strong opposition to his e-cigarette bill. As a result, he offered to withdraw his bill for further study, effectively killing it. He invited the health advocates to work with him on a new bill, comprehensively defining e-cigarettes and vapor products and prohibiting their sale to minors, will be reintroduced next year, he says.

The saga of the e-cigarette legislative proposal is a good example that participating in the legislative process can go a long way especially for those who put the energy and effort into it. Sound testimony combined with bringing in your supporters to the table will most certainly get the attention of lawmakers. Yes, that’s Democracy in action.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.