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Television current affairs shows have a long tradition of promoting "scientific" breakthroughs which owe little to science and a lot to the entrepreneurial spirit of inventors and promoters. These shows are where you go to hear about the latest gadget or additive to increase the mileage of your car or to save large amounts of money by reducing or even eliminating your electricity bill. As a change from these perpetual motion machines we get medical devices which cause wondrous changes to the body and increase health and wellness.
A recent example was the $60 rubber band that improved strength and balance. They did nothing of the sort, of course, which is why the ACCC ordered the sellers of the biggest-name product, Power Balance, to refund all the money, but that didn't prevent them from getting many minutes of free advertising on TV shows with millions of viewers. With the demise of Power Balance there will be a brief interlude, but I fully expect to see a similar product promoted in a similar fashion any day now.
The latest fad seems to be hand-held devices that can be rubbed on the body to perform magic, and at least three of these have been given extensive and uncritical advertising over the last few months.
Let's look first at what these devices have in common, before we consider their differences. All of them are a little larger than a mobile phone, about the size of a Nintendo Wii controller. They usually have a small screen to display vital information, but some also have a "home" version which just has flashing lights. All claim to work by doing something to nerves or nerve cells. All are backed by many testimonials from satisfied customers, but none have any actual scientific research, or even scientific plausibility. At least one of them proudly claims EU "CE" certification, but so does the charger for my mobile phone so I'm not sure how that is relevant. Two of them claim to have achieved listing as medical devices with the Therapeutic Goods Administration and the third is waiting. (TGA listing just means that they won't electrocute you, not that they actually do anything.) All of them are promoted to professional healers who then charge patients for treatment. All of them are sold as safe and effective alternatives to conventional medical treatment for pain.
The first of these is the Migraine Zapper. (The word "zapper" has unfortunate connotations as it was the word used by the late but not lamented Tijuana cancer quack Hulda Clark as the name for her miracle cancer, AIDS and diabetes cure.) This thing treats migraine which is apparently caused by "electrical storms" in the brain and to do this it "short circuits the storm sending magnetic pulses throughout the brain". At the time the promotion was broadcast the sellers claimed that approval for sale in Australia was imminent, but a check today of the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods showed only various pills as permitted migraine treatments. I think I'll stick to the ibuprofen.
The next one is the HI-DOW Massager V, which uses a well-known technology called TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) to trigger nerve impulses and cure both chronic and acute pain. I've had TENS used on me by a physiotherapist for muscle spasm, and it is a legitimate medical treatment. This device, however, is much better than those old-fashioned arrangements of wires and suction caps that the physio used on me, because not only can you hold it in your hand but it "has a new 6th mode" and "is set apart from other Tens devices on the market as it continually tricks the brain". At the time the advertisement went to air (November, 2010) the promoter was claiming TGA approval but a search today of the ARTG showed nothing called "HI-DOW". Perhaps the approval lapsed. Perhaps the promoter lied and hoped that nobody would think to check.
The third device is the SCENAR, which claims to work by causing nerves near where the device is rubbed on the body to tell the brain to release pain-killing endorphins targeted back to the point of stimulation. It actually does have ARTG listing, but this doesn't mean that it does what the promoters claim it does. In fact, the promoters were recently asked by the TGA's Complaints Resolution Panel to display a notice on their web site saying that the claims made for it were false and backed by no science, although no notice was displayed as far as I can tell. CRP requests are just that, requests, and can be and often are ignored. Because much scientific evidence for this device is claimed I checked PubMed, an international database of the medical literature, and found four papers about it. Three were in Russian (the thing was invented in Russia as a "spin off from the space program") and can be assumed to be produced by the manufacturers. The fourth was a report of three people with pain following herpes infections. The "study" was carried out by an ophthalmologist (?) and declared the device effective despite the fact that one of the patients needed treatment for more than six months.
Pain is subjective and perception of pain is very susceptible to the placebo effect. I know this because I have at times suffered from migraine and an injured back. Placebo is all these devices offer, which means that they also offer the major danger of all alternative medicine � there might be a real problem that isn't detected because the patient thinks that they are better and doesn't bother to get proper medical attention.
Let's get back to the original point of the way these devices and other forms of pseudoscience get free publicity on television programs. These shows often pretend to be doing "investigative journalism", but part of journalism is checking the facts. It took me five minutes to check the ARTG status of these three devices, yet at least one managed to get a false claim of approval to air. Several hours before the SCENAR advertisement went to air I advised the program producers of the fact that the promoters had been found to be deceptive in advertisements, but there was no mention of this in the show.
People trust these shows, which you can see if you look at the comments on the show web sites after any example of this sort of story, and there are millions of viewers. The shows claim to get behind the news but when challenged fall back on the "it's entertainment" excuse. They should make up their minds. Either do journalism or admit that anything goes as long as the audience can be held until the next ad break. And if I were someone paying for those ads I'd be a bit annoyed at having my expensive air time followed by five minutes of free advertising for some useless example of snake oil.
This article was published on the Yahoo! 7 News Blog on February 15, 2011