The Truth About Scam Central

A quack, according to one congressional committee, is "anyone who promotes medical schemes or remedies known to be false, or which are unproven, for a profit."

Ask your aunt in Iowa where America's quacks flock, and she'll likely tell you: Los Angeles. But is the city's reputation for gullibility deserved? WILLIAM JARVIS, a professor of public health at Loma Linda University and founder of the Southern California Council Against Health Fraud, lectures nationwide on bogus medical treatments. We asked him to put the matter to rest.

It seems everyone accepts that the U.S. is tilted and all the loose screws roll west. I usually go along with the joke for a while. Los Angeles' main street, after all, is named for Gaylord Wilshire, who, after earning his reputation as a real estate wheeler-dealer, in 1926 invented and marketed a magnetic, horse-collar-like contraption that was supposed to heal. ("Often patients, at the first treatment, like Lazarus, arise well and whole," one ad claimed.)

In the time since that device created a short-lived fad, Southern California has spawned or nurtured countless other health scams, from radio-like devices that broadcast "healing waves" to crystals, wheat grass and apricot-pit cancer cures. But studies by Congress, the American Cancer Society and other organizations suggest that Southern California is not quite the quackery epicenter it seems.

Santa Fe, N.M., appears to hold the top spot, with one "alternative" practitioner for every 27 citizens--compared to only one conventional doctor per 200. New Age meccas such as Sedona, Ariz., and Boulder, Colo., are also aswirl in vortexes of cosmic medical psychobabble. The Midwest and New England are rife with modern snake oil hucksters. And Florida has more quacks than a duck pond next to a crouton factory. Like parts of the Golden State, Florida is rich in a commodity that makes medical charlatans swarm: people who are wealthy, aging and eager to have the universal problems of humanity chanted, channeled or magnetized away.

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