Friday, December 31, 2010

Zippity Zappity, Powerbands and AMI

I thought that I would make my last post for 2010 a recap of the fight against quackery and shonky medicine in Australia. The ACCC and TGA seem to be finally growing some balls because we have seen public action against Fatzap, Power Balance Bands, and now AMI. So far, AMI has filed for liquidation, Power Balance's Tom O'Dowd has admitted that his claims are rubbish, but FatZap is still standing.

Power Bands

For those not familiar with the story of the Power Balance Bands, these are small silicone bands bearing holograms that would allegedly improve your concentration, energy, performance or whatever. Frankly, this is a whole load of bullshit and there was no way that they could physiologically work, but that didn't stop a whole series of paid sporting celebrities wearing them and effectively promoting them.

The company claims (via its US website, as the Australian website has been ordered to take down these claims):

Power Balance is Performance Technology designed to work with your body’s natural energy field. Founded by athletes, Power Balance is a favorite among elite athletes for whom balance, strength and flexibility are important.
Power Balance is based on the idea of optimizing the body’s natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many Eastern philosophies. The hologram in Power Balance is designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body.

The NineMSN report (below) of copycat competitor Eken Power Bands makes very similar claims. Notice how despite having a series of experts saying it is rubbish, they still add in an upbeat soundtrack, fall for some nonsensical "tests" which are clearly admitted to be nonscientific and easily manipulated, and suggest that a "placebo effect" (which is basically when a subject thinks a treatment is working even when it isn't) is a good thing, and still a good reason to waste money on a $60 elastic band on the wrist. What next? Magical staples? Psychic paperclips?

The Power Balance guys say that you can test that the band is working and help spot "fakes." Obviously, this is a rigorous and high-tech process as the following image shows.

Personally, I'd prefer to trust the tests done by Choice Magazine and Australian Skeptics, which clearly prove that these devices are ineffective and that the ACCC is justified in forcing Power Balance to withdraw their claims and offer a full refund to all customers.

"We'd made claims in the start that said that our product improved strength, balance and flexibility," he told the ABC's AM program.
"And we didn't have the scientific peer-reviewed double blind testing or the level of proof that we needed to substantiate those claims."
- Tom O'Dowd, Power Balance CEO. ABC Radio AM - 23/12/2010

"Advanced" Medical Institute

One of AMI's controversial billboards.

As for AMI, or Advanced Medical Institute, a sister-company to my much-favoured Heart-Check Clinics (see Heart Check? Blank Cheque! and Part 2), they have had a series of devastating blows in the UK and Australia. This is the company responsible for those horrible billboards and TV advertisements (above) promoting treatment for erectile dysfunction (and inviting every form of sexual innuendo and pun available). This effectively rides on the coat-tails of big-budget pharmaceutical promotion for Viagra, and offers a series of expensive, escalating treatments ranging from nasal sprays to penile injections - all in direct competition to that blue pill.

There is no doubt that AMI has been very successful, and despite being under the spotlight for many years, it has managed to continue raking in the cash and staying in business. Why? Well, Jack Vaisman, founder of AMI has managed to find a little niche by:
    AMI Founder Jack Vaisman
  • utilising a growing market and consumer demand fostered by other parties (such as Pfizer)
  • making use of a sensitive and embarrassing topic (impotence or erectile dysfunction), with many patients unwilling to air their dissatisfaction in public or approach authorities
  • boldly pushing ahead with mass advertising, successfully made them a household name
  • advertising a plausible, publicly tolerable (apomorphine nasal spray) treatment with minimal further detail, and then sucking consumers into overpriced conventional erectile dysfunction therapy using typical bait-and-switch sales techniques
  • locking customers into expensive, 6-month "contract sales" where they pay a large fee (either lump sum or monthly) for a supply of the aforementioned spray, with the only means of backing out being to complete a series of conventional but increasingly undesirable therapies (such as Papaverine or Prostaglandin Penile Injections) - like mobile phone companies and their contracts

Whilst it is good to see that authorities have finally done enough to cause Jack Vaisman to liquidate AMI, the most disturbing thing is that it does not really address the heart of his success - the ability to make unsubstantiated and fraudulent claims about his treatments. It is not the TGA that has been successful as exposing him as a shonk and shutting him down - it is the ACCC which has fined him for unconscionable sales conduct, and allowing non-medical staff to provide medical services and advice. To me, it highlights the impotence of the TGA at regulating the claims of therapies in its register, which is much more serious than the impotence of AMI's customers. It also demonstrates the lack of moral and ethical behaviour amongst unregistered, pseudomedical practitioners who fall outside any effective professional regulatory framework.


Which leads us to FatZap. This company claims that by applying heat (via infrared laser, ultrasound, radiofrequency or whatever) to an area of subcutaneous fat that it can just make it go away.

Fatzap™ Ultra Sound Treatment uses low frequency ultrasound resonance technology to disrupt fat cells. An ultrasound beam selectively targets fat cells in the chosen body area, and brings them to self resonance. This process triggers the fat cells to release their fatty substance in that particular area. The fat cell content, primarily comprised of triglycerides, is dispersed into the fluid between the cells and then transported through the vascular and lymphatic systems to the liver. The liver makes no distinction between fat coming from the Fatzap™ treatment and fat originating from consumed food. Both are processed by the body’s natural mechanisms. So that your body metabolises this excess liquefied fat rather than stores it elsewhere in the body, we recommend a low carbohydrate eating plan with overall negative calorie intake for several days following each treatment.

Personally, I don't want ultrasound to damage any of my cells, be they fat or otherwise. Did you know that the myelin sheath around your nerves is composed of 80% fat? If FatZap's claims are true, I'm waiting for an explosion in legal suits for peripheral neuropathy.

Like many cosmetic clinics, FatZap pushes its products through social media seeding - where someone posing as a satisfied customer makes comments on community forums or blogs saying how great the treatment is - a cheap and nasty way to make unsubstantiated claims as the comments can't be traced back to the source. Look at the following forums / chat boards for examples, and notice how the most enthusiastic comments are from new members with only 1 post.
Walking Adipose from Partners in Crime,
Doctor Who (BBC 2008, Episode 1, Series 4)

Personally, I would have thought that these treatments are about as realistic as this episode of Doctor Who, but then again, some people will believe anything. Let's hope that FatZap and its copycats don't last beyond 2011.


Power Bands Let Loose
  • Watchdog says power wristbands a crock - ABC News Australia Dec 2010
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  • Power band no better than a rubber band: ACCC - The Australian Dec 2010
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  • Do power bands really work? - NineMSN Sep 2010
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  • Power of holograms or just a big scam? - Sunday Mail Apr 2010
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AMI Deflated
  • Sex ripoff 'unconscionable' - SMH Dec 2010
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  • The hard sell for longer-lasting sex - SMH Dec 2010
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  • ACCC alleges unconscionable conduct in promotion and supply of men's sexual dysfunction treatment program - ACCC Website Dec 2010
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  • London clinic’s £3,000 ‘cure’ for impotence was only a nasal spray - London Evening Standard Jul 2010
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  • Advanced Medical Institute to pay compo - SMH 7 Dec 2010
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  • Doctors give sex drugs a spray - SMH May 2009
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  • Want longer lasting sex? Steer clear of AMI’s ‘Nasal Delivery Technology’ - Feb 2009
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  • The controversial life and times of Doctor Droop - The Age Feb 2009
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  • Rise of nasal spray guru - Daily Telegraph Oct 2006
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FatZap Not the Good Oil
  • Fat zappers may be a fad too far - The Age Sep 2010
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  • Fatzap Centres continue to claim to melt away weight - Herald Sun Aug 2009
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