Show Number 911


Can this machine cure me?

David explores numerous medical quackery gadgets.


The word quackery usually brings to mind old-time fast-talking medicine peddlers who conned their listeners into buying cure-all bottled syrup. It reminds people of flowery and curious advertisements promising miracles like "Certain cure for all contagious diseases without drugging the system!" But as Abraham Lincoln said, "It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all people all of the time."

Have these alternative treatments gone the way of horse-drawn wagons, put out to pasture by medical advances and the regulations of the government? Most medical and advertising experts say no. In fact, today's medical quacks, fraudulently earning millions of dollars, would be the envy of early practitioners. As fast as medical research debunks the quack claims, con artists invent profitable new packaging that simply draw on the latest words in medicine, like electronic and hormonal, or with references to new discoveries of wonder drugs. There is also an explosion of less threatening, yet still fraudulent, methods of self-medication from diet and cold remedies to hair restorers and wrinkle removers.

Quack medicine refers to any worthless treatments while medical fraud implies an intent to deceive the consumer. False or misleading health claims for a food, drug, device or cosmetic are all forms of medical quackery. These products use human hope, fears and ignorance to make a profit. Only critical examination and careful consideration by consumers can limit the success of practitioners of these quack alternative therapies.

Things to Talk About

  1. Have you ever bought something only to find it doesn't live up to its advertised claims? How did you feel when you realized you had been taken?
  2. How should producers of medical quackeries be punished for misleading people?

Fraud--Intentional deception in order to induce another to part with something of value or to surrender a legal right.

Quack--Someone who pretends to have medical skill or resource.

Mountebank--To beguile or transform by trickery.

Alternative Treatment--A substance or technique used in treating something or someone that is other than the normal course of treatment.

Placebo--A medication prescribed for the mental relief of the patient rather than for its actual effect on a disorder or an inert or innocuous substance used especially in controlled experiments testing the ability of another substance.


Additional Sources of Information

Activity Page

Reading Between the Lines

Discover ways you can evaluate the medical products and treatments you see advertised on TV and radio and in magazines and catalogs.

Main Activity

Some promoters sincerely believe in their quack products while others deliberately deceive consumers for profit or fame. Learn how to protect yourself and your family from these worthless products.


1. Look through the materials you have collected. Pay particular attention to ads for aspirins, cold remedies, vitamins, weight-loss and weight-gain products, hair restorers and cosmetics.

2. Create a check list of questions to use in evaluating each advertised product. Try to determine if each claim about the product or treatment is believable or if it sounds suspicious. Does the advertisement contain words like secret, revolutionary, ancient, overnight, miracle or breakthrough? Has the promoter promised never to reveal the secret of their product? Does the advertisement claim there is a conspiracy among doctors to keep the product off the market? Does the advertisement claim that it can cure a long list of problems with no side effects? Does the promoter claim to be the only person who can help?

3. Make a list of all the suspicious claims you find. Analyze each statement to see if there are any real facts in it. Describe what you think makes the product sound legitimate and what makes it appear misleading.

4. See if you can find several different types of products or treatments. Post your advertisements and analyses in the classroom. Compare yours with your classmates'.


1. What kinds of problems can quack medical products and treatments create? Could they delay someone from seeking legitimate medical help?

2. Look at a few advertisements for legitimate medicines. Do these ads use any of the same selling techniques? What are the best ways to tell which are real medicines and quack ones?

3. Some medical quacks have legitimate credentials and others have self-proclaimed or mail order education degrees. How could you investigate someone's credentials? If you found them to be illegitimate, what would you do?

Contact your local consumer protection agency and ask if any quack remedies or devices are popular in your area. Survey your friends and families to see if any of the products they use are actually quack remedies. Where do they find these products? Do they know they may not be legitimate medical treatments? If so, why do they keep using them?

Sometimes medical quackery seems to work by relying on the placebo effect. Gain a better understanding of how this effect works. Which of the following would you call placebos: a pill made of sugar; penicillin to cure pneumonia; chicken soup; a warm bath; and a Teen Age Mutant Ninja Turtle bandage. Can you find other examples of placebos?

The next time you have the hiccups, try some of these folk cures. Place your two little fingers in your ears and hold your breath. Or, hold both of your ears tightly closed and have someone else give you a drink of water. You also could try wearing some nutmeg around your neck. Have you heard of other ways that you can cure the hiccups? Make a list of folk medicine cures for other common ailments like warts, baldness and nosebleeds. Can you find information on the origins of these folk techniques?

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