Consumer Health Digest #02-47

Your Weekly Update of News and Reviews
November 19, 2002


Consumer Health Digest is a free weekly e-mail newsletter edited by Stephen Barrett, M.D., and cosponsored by NCAHF and Quackwatch. It summarizes scientific reports; legislative developments; enforcement actions; news reports; Web site evaluations; recommended and nonrecommended books; and other information relevant to consumer protection and consumer decision-making.


Remote prayer report misrepresented its data. Wired Magazine has uncovered evidence that data used to obtain two federal research grants totaling $1.5 million were represented as positive even though they were not. [Bronson P. A prayer before dying. Wired Magazine, Dec 2002] The research, done by the late Elisabeth Targ, M.D. and colleagues, involved 40 patients with advanced AIDS who were randomly selected for either "distant healing" or a control group. The "healers," many of whom were located thousands of miles away, performed various prayer-based ministrations after receiving photographs of the patients. After six months, the researchers concluded that the subjects who were not prayed for had spent 6 times as many days in the hospital and contracted 3 times as many AIDS-related illnesses. [Sicher F, Targ E, and others A randomized double-blind study of the effect of distant healing in a population with advanced AIDS. Report of a small scale study. Western Journal of Medicine 169:356-363, 1998.] The researchers subsequently were funded by the NIH Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to conduct two 150-patient trials—one on brain cancer, and the other to redo the AIDS study.

Wired Magazine has reported that the study was "unblinded and then reblinded to scour for data that confirmed the thesis" and that the journal editors did not know this fact when they decided to publish. The study was designed to measure death rates. When the data showed no difference between the prayer and control groups, the researchers conducted a chart review that was not properly blinded, looked for other differences, and reported that several were statistically significant. This analysis was improper because when many endpoints are examined, the odds of finding a few that appear significant are much higher than the odds of a single endpoint selected in advance proving significant. Wired referred to this as "the sharpshooter's fallacy—spraying bullets randomly, then drawing a target circle around a cluster" and calling it significant.

Elisabeth Targ, a lifetime believer in parapsychology, was the daughter of Russell Targ, a prominent parapsychologist who believed that some people could view objects at great distances through psychic means, a practice referred to as "remote viewing." In April 2002, Elisabeth was diagnosed as having an incurable glioblastoma multiforme, the very same brain tumor that her remote healing research would study. She died four months later despite the efforts of "healers" and other believers worldwide who prayed for her.


"Miss Cleo" marketers settle with FTC. In a landmark settlement, Access Resource Services, Inc. (ARS) and Psychic Readers Network, Inc. (PRN), and and their officers, Steven L. Feder and Peter Stolz, have agreed to a stipulated court order stopping all collection efforts on accounts or claims from consumers who purchased or purportedly purchased their pay-per-call or audiotext services and forgiving an estimated $500 million in outstanding consumer charges. The Florida-based companies and their officers operated a massive 900-number scheme known to the public as the "Miss Cleo" psychic lines. The FTC alleged that the defendants engaged in deceptive advertising, billing, and collection practices. The settlement also requires the defendants to pay $5 million to the FTC. ["Miss Cleo" promoters to forgive approximately $500 million in outstanding consumer charges and pay an additional $5 million to settle FTC charges. FTC news release, Nov 15, 2002] Settlements have also been reached with the attorneys general of Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Last month a Missouri court sentenced Feder and Stolz to probation and fines to settle criminal charges of unlawful merchandising practices. The FTC case was prompted by more than 2,000 consumers who complained that the "psychic" service promised a free reading but directed them to a 900 number that charged $4.99 a minute. The operators made the calls last as long as possible by falsely telling callers they would not be charged while placed on hold. The company also harassed people with multiple automated messages urging them to call for additional services.


Psychologist's cat obtains five "professional" credentials. Steve K.D. Eichel, Ph.D., who practices psychology in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has obtained certificates for his cat from five organizations: "certification" from the National Guild of Hypnotists and the International Medical & Dental Hypnotherapy Association; "registration" from the American Board of Hypnotherapy; and "professional membership" in the American Association of Professional Hypnotherapists. In each case, the only requirement was completion of a brief online questionnaire and payment of a fee—none checked any of the cat's alleged credentials. The cat also obtained "board certification" from the American Psychotherapy Association (APA), an affiliate of the American College of Forensic Examiners. Although the APA asked for a copy of the cat's curriculum vitae, it did not ask for any documentation of credentials or check whether anything listed in the CV was genuine. Nor did it require any examination before issuing a certificate attesting to the having met "rigid requirements" resulting in her "designation as a Diplomate." The acceptance letter that accompanied the certificate stated that diplomate status "is limited to a select group of professionals who, by virtue of their extensive training and expertise, have demonstrated their outstanding abilities in regard to their specialty." [Eichel SKD. Credentialing: It may not be the cat's meow. Greater Philadelphia Society of Clinical Hypnosis Web site, accessed Nov 14, 2002]


Vitamin E supplementation not found effective against macular degeneration. A randomized placebo-controlled study has found no evidence that supplementation with vitamin E can prevent the development or progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a disease in which the central portion of the retina deteriorates so that only peripheral vision remains. The study involved 1193 healthy volunteers, aged 55 and 80 years, who were given 500 International Units of vitamin E or a placebo daily for four years. About 73% of the subjects completed the study. [Taylor HR and others. Vitamin E supplementation and macular degeneration: Randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Medicine 325:11-14, 2002].


Internet-based veterinary pharmacies disciplined. PetMed Express has agreed to stop dispensing medications through its "alternative veterinary program." PetMed was engaged in an enterprise whereby customers could obtain prescriptions for their pets through a Web site where they filled out a questionnaire. According to the The Florida Board of Pharmacy, that information would then be forwarded to a veterinarian affiliated with PetMed who would issue a prescription for PetMed Express to fill. The consent agreement calls for payment of $67,799 in fines and costs, termination of the "alternative veterinary program," and performance of 200 hours of community service activity. Savemax, a similar program at the same location, agreed to pay a $9,358 in fines and costs, perform 100 hours of community service, and move its office to a different location.. [Florida Board of Pharmacy disciplines PetMed Express, Savemax: Internet pharmacies given another chance. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, June 1, 2002] In 1999, PetMed was fined $30,000 in a similar case. In January 2002, it agreed to pay a $100,000 penalty to settle charges by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it had sold misbranded foreign-labeled versions of two popular flea-control products. [EPA fines PetMed Express, Inc., Internet pet supply company, $100,000 for selling allegedly misbranded pet products. EPA news release, Jan 23, 2002]


Ravi Devgan, M.D., facing new criminal charges. Ravi Devgan, M.D., a Canadian physician who operates "alternative" clinics in Canada and Mexico, is facing four charges in relation to an alleged conspiracy to traffic in oxycodone hydrochloride, a prescription opium-based narcotic pill. [Gadd J. MD chooses jury trial in drug case. Toronto Globe and Mail, Nov 13, 2002] Last year, the paper reported:


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This page was posted on November 19, 2002.