HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

FTC Saves Us from Gullibility

The Internet is awash in ancient, natural, alternative (pick an anodyne adjective) miracles that will outperform modern medicine’s expensive, toxic unnatural (pick a malicious adjective) treatments. A generation ago, hucksters had to mount whistle-stop campaigns, man booths at fairgrounds, and advertise in local newspapers. Today all they need is a website.

The claims are alluring. Will special magnets, artfully placed on bald spots, revive hair follicles? Will extract from mussels cure arthritis? Will selenium ward off cancer? Or cure it? What about an alkaline water cure for whatever ails you?

I don’t know.

But I do know that all of us at some time have reached for a bottle, a salve, a gizmo, thinking why not? It can’t hurt. It might help. Half-believing, half-skeptical, we’ve opened up wallets, or better yet, put it on VISA. The more desperate we’ve been, the more willingly — even eagerly — we’ve spent.

I also know that the people on the other end of the transactions — the ones marketing the pills and salves and gizmos — have been smiling en route to the bank. Our gullibility feeds their business.

The question is: so what? Much of what we buy taps into our vanity, our greed, our illusions. And we know it. Makeup that won’t streak, investments that won’t tumble, paint-that-won’t fade, cars that won’t morph into lemons — we’ve heard the pitches, bought the products, and often left “satisfied,” in the words of customer surveys. If only because we don’t want to be too self-critical, we’ve checked “satisfied.”

So why not let those health-miracles slide? Free-market enthusiasts would give the hucksters a pass. A robust market needs consumers, and consumers need some prodding. Libertarians fearful of government-as-Big Brother would also give a pass: Citizens have the constitutional right to spend their money however they want. That constitutes freedom, especially since my freedom to embrace ancient miracles doesn’t encroach on anybody else’s wellbeing. So would the legions of Americans skeptical of established medicine: after all, maybe one fraction of this stuff actually works. Besides, the placebo effect is real.

In this year of loathing government, when even rational Americans feel a sympathy for Tea Partiers’ rancor, let me sing the praises of a Big Brother who acts as a hedge against our gullibility: the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC doesn’t outright ban most products that will probably do no harm; but it does insist that those products advertise truthfully. Entrepreneurs of the world have a green light to market whatever they concoct; in fact, the profusion of ancient, natural alternative miracles that are freely available to anybody with a credit card testifies to this unfettered market. The caveat is that the entrepreneurs must tell the truth. If they claim miracles for their products, they must substantiate those claims.

Periodically the FTC issues its warnings, forces some companies to withdraw products (or retract advertising claims), and occasionally goes to court to stop other venders. In a concerted Operation False Cures, the FTC recently targeted the slew of “money back guaranteed” cures for cancer.

Conservatives would find it easy to slay this governmental Big Brother. From a budgetary vantage, we’d save some tax money. Certainly the vendors of the products would applaud these cuts (and reward the politicians making the cuts). From the vantage of consumer choice, we’d be giving people the chance to buy what they want. We’d be leaving products free to compete in an open unregulated marketplace (just as we have done for many of the products in the financial services industry.) The FTC only hampers that free-wheeling marketplace. If “caveat emptor” works for the world of commerce, “patient emptor” should work for the world of healthcare.

Yet patients who vault into an unregulated marketplace to embrace these miracles-that-aren’t are wasting not just their money, but their time. Modern medicine is expensive; it has side effects; there are no sure-fire cures, no money-back guaranteed miracles to ward off diseases. People who substitute miracles for medicine risk losing their lives.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2010

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