One of my biggest pet peeves is advertisements for bogus health-related products that are deceptively presented as news stories. These appear regularly in many newspapers, including my own local paper The Tacoma News Tribune, and they typically fill a full half page. They usually include the words “advertisement” or “paid advertisement” in small print that is easy to miss. In every other way, format, typeface, appearance, reporter by-line, pictures, organizational affiliations etc. these fake news stories are indistinguishable from real news stories.
It got to the point that I opened the daily paper dreading to see how many of these fake news stories it contained. Occasionally I found none, but most days there were one, two, or even three of them. I started keeping a list. I got angry enough to critique a few of them in articles on the Science-Based Medicine website. They were a constant aggravation. Then one day I realized the newspaper had raised the subscription rates and my credit card was being charged $82.34 every month. I had been paying nearly $3 a day for very little real news and way too much fake news. I’d had enough! I cancelled my subscription.
They didn’t want me to go. They offered to reduce the subscription rates. That just made me angrier. If they could reduce the rates, why hadn’t they already done that? They kept insisting. They really wanted me back. Finally, they asked how much I would be willing to pay. I told them I didn’t want it at any price. (I should have asked if they would be willing to pay me.) I no longer get the daily paper. I don’t miss it. My life is more tranquil now, and my blood pressure is lower. But it still annoys me that naïve readers are being fooled by fake news.
Many of the fake news articles name the reporter in a byline. I had not heard of any of them, so I asked Google about them. Google did not recognize any of these individuals as reporters with credible reputations for writing about health or science. In fact, it had no information about most of them. Do these people even exist? Are they pseudonyms? Invented names for nonexistent people? Hacks for hire?
In one example posted online[i]a fake news story is printed right alongside a real news story by a reputable, prize-winning medical journalist, Marilynn Marchione. If the newspaper doesn’t recognize the difference, how can readers be expected to?
Many of the fake news stories claim to come from an organization such as National Media Syndicate, Associated Health Press, Health News Service, National Network Media, National News Syndicate, National Health Syndicate, etc. These organizations either don’t exist or are copycat variations intended to be confused with actual reputable news organizations like the Associated Press wire service.
Co-opting Dr. Oz
I have now spotted the same picture in four different fake news stories that are actually ads for four different products developed and sold by Dr. Al Sears, an MD who practices “integrative medicine” and is a self-proclaimed anti-aging specialist. The picture shows Dr. Sears and Dr. Mehmet Oz photographed together at a health and wellness festival in Florida. The picture is evidence that they were there together, but nothing more; and the stories are careful not to make any further claims. But it is obvious that they want readers to assume that a widely respected celebrity like Dr. Oz endorses Dr. Sears’ products. I don’t think he does.
The four products are Re-Nourish, Restore, Omega Rejuvenol, and Ultra Accel.
“Baldness Reversed in Clinical Trial: New Hair Sprouts in 30 days.” Re-Nourish is a spray to reverse baldness that was allegedly developed by Dr. Sears based on a discovery by the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. That’s very misleading. A doctor at Harvard examined hundreds of substances in the pipeline that nourishes stem cells and found one of them so important that he went on record as saying, “Without it, you’re dead in 30 seconds!”[ii]The clinical trial was of niacin; Re-Nourish itself has not been clinically tested. Dr. Sears offers stem cell treatments, but Re-Nourish is not a stem cell product: it only contains ingredients said to nourish stem cells. It is highly unlikely that Dr. Oz would endorse anything to do with new, untested stem cell treatments, since he has spoken out strongly against stem cell clinics that offer expensive, unproven treatments. And the article he wrote on hair-loss treatments doesn’t mention stem cells or niacin or Re-Nourish. It concluded “The only product on the market that is absolutely proven to work and FDA approved is Minoxidil.”[iii]
Restore: “Better than Botox: Takes 10 Years Off Your Face in Just 10 Minutes.” This cream uses a special delivery system to supply nutrients that allegedly eliminate fine lines and wrinkles permanently. The fake news story references a clinical trial of Madonna lily leaf stem cell extract that improved skin luminance and tone around the eyes. The Restore product itself has never been clinically tested.
“CoQ10’s Failure Leaves Millions Wanting” and “World’s #2 Smartest Man Reveals Secret ‘Genius Pill.’” These are both fake news stories about Omega Rejuvenol, an anti-aging and brain-boosting supplement based on omega-3 from krill and squid oils. As I explained in my Science-Based Medicine article,[iv]Dr. Sears makes exaggerated claims for its benefits but his claims are not supported by evidence.
The product Ultra Accel II is allegedly a “youth-restoring pill” that could increase the human life span to 146 years. (I wish!) There are some preliminary results indicating benefits for mice, but no scientific evidence to support any claims for human benefits.
Dr. Sears’ modus operandi
On the HighYa website, a review of Dr. Sears explains how he works:[v]
“[he] takes 1 or 2 studies that:
- May not have been peer reviewed.
- May conflict with the wealth of other clinical studies already completed.
- May not ever have been repeated.
- May not have even been performed on humans, or in some instances, were performed only in a Petri dish.
…and then extrapolates this to reach some conclusion that’s far outside the scope of the trials he’s referencing.”
Other fake pictures
Most of the fake news stories are illustrated by photographs that are probably stock photo images. Some are generic pictures of doctors and patients. Some say, “models are used in all photos to protect privacy.” Some are pictures of pills that bear no resemblance to the pills being advertised. Pictures are good: anything to confuse the reader.
Some of the statements in the fake news articles are false, others are misleading. They offer testimonials. They report animal and test tube study results which may not apply to humans. They report positive results in clinical studies, but these are usually studies of a single ingredient rather than of the product itself or even of the mixture of ingredients in the product. The results are far from impressive, and they neglect to mention other studies that were negative. They post x-rays and illustrations that do not show what they claim to show.
The products in these fake news stories are alternative medicine treatments, usually dietary supplements. Treatments that have been tested and proven to work are not called “alternative.” They are called “medicine.” Real medicines don’t need fake news ads like these.
Products aimed at older readers
Younger folk are more likely to get their news from electronic sources than to subscribe to a daily newspaper. Newspaper subscribers are likely to be older. The fake news items are not aimed at young people, but at problems we face as we grow older. They offer better sex, better erections, better memory, better sleep, longer life, relief of arthritis pain, reduced prostate symptoms, better eyesight, weight loss aids, bladder control, blood pressure control “without drugs,” a “joint pain vaccine,” healing psoriasis, relieving nerve pain, and a natural cure for constipation that “removes toxins [what toxins?] and cleanses the colon [why would it need cleansing?].”
The headlines for these fake news stories are sensationalist, too good to be true, and not substantiated in the text:
- “Doctors Predict End of Prostate Problems by 2021.”
- “Pills May Replace Diapers and Padded Underwear At Stores.”
- “Drug Companies Fear Release of the New AloeCure.”
- “Leading Acid Reflux Pill Becomes an Anti-aging Phenomenon” (Aloe vera)
- “A ‘Miracle’ Discovered by the US Navy Could Flush Your Arteries Clean Of All Life-Threatening Arterial Plaque” (EDTA)
- “Doctors Across the U.S, Call It ‘The Breakthrough That Changes Everything.’” (phosphatidylserine)
The required FDA disclaimer statement usually appears at the bottom of the page in print too small for the average elderly person to read. It says, “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” Sometimes it adds that all doctors mentioned were remunerated for their services. Some say “Results atypical. Your results may vary.” Some say, “In order to assure confidentiality, identifying details, scenarios have been changed, modified or fictionalized.”
They expect readers to either not read the disclaimers or to dismiss them, thinking “Oh, they’re required to say that; it doesn’t mean anything.”
Incentives to buy
They don’t want you to wait and think about it or wait to ask your doctor. They want you to buy right now. They usually offer a hotline with a special discount for 48 hours only. They say they will have to shut down the hotline after 48 hours to restock. They say the hotlines are often busy, so if you don’t get through, keep trying or you will end up having to pay full price. They may say only a limited supply is available and if you don’t buy now you may have to wait until more is available, which could take weeks.
They offer money-back guarantees, sometimes even double money-back guarantees; but it may not be so easy to get that money back. It’s always a good idea to check online for customer complaints and Better Business Bureau reports. Sometimes they rope you in to a convenient monthly delivery so you’ll never run out, and customers complain that it is next to impossible to get the recurring credit card charge cancelled.
Some offer free gifts if you buy now. Books, reports, even other bogus products.
Violating journalism’s code of ethics
Journalists have codes of ethics, and these fake news stories clearly violate them. I understand that newspapers need advertising income. But I can’t condone the newspapers’ disguising these ads as news stories and making it hard for readers to distinguish real news from fake news. They are deliberately misleading their customers with false information about health. Shame on them!
This article was originally published as a Reality Is the Best Medicine column in Skeptical Inquirer.