Over-the-Counter Quackery

September 11, 1992

Quack medicine thrives on selling people products that can only make them think they feel better. Critics have long %o maintained that quackery still thrives in your local drug store in the form of over-the-counter remedies that don't do what they claim to do. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration announced that 415 ingredients used in non-prescription medications have not been proven to be effective for the uses claimed by manufacturers. A similar finding was issued two years ago for 223 ingredients, and another 111 were placed on the list last year. The new regulations are expected to take effect after a 60-day comment period.

While welcoming the move, consumer activists are quick to point out that it comes three full decades after Congress mandated that manufacturers be able to support the claims they make for their products -- and the review is still unfinished. At that glacial pace, critics say, consumers can expect to be enticed by inflated or misleading claims for years to come.

The new ruling affects some old and familiar products, while not necessarily banning them. For instance, calamine lotion -- that old standby for poison ivy -- can still be sold. But it can only be billed as a skin protectant, not as an effective way to relieve pain or itching.

It remains to be see whether manufacturers will change the labels on products and the claims they make in advertising or drop the products affected by the new regulations altogether. The safety of the ingredients is not in question, simply the effectiveness -- and, perhaps, the willingness of customers to keep calamine lotion in their medicine chests regardless of the absence of evidence that their money was well-spent.

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