Magnetic Appeal

From the Rational Enquirer, Vol 3, No. 4, Apr 90.

Did you see an interesting ad in TV Guide a while back for "Micro-Magnets... New Miraculous Pain-Relieving Therapy"?

The three-page advertisement for tiny magnets that stick on the skin and cure what ails you must have cost a bundle for International Health Organization of Montreal, but if enough customers sent in $24.90 for 20 magnets, or $49.50 for 50 or $89.90 for 100 (plus tax, postage and handling, of course) it may yet have been worthwhile for magnet-peddling adherents of the thought of Phineas T. Barnum: "There's a sucker born every minute".

The ads state baldly that "magnets help bring relief from aches, pains and disorders arising from more than 60 ailments". "Clinical tests", which they modestly do not describe, "performed in leading Japanese hospitals", which they modestly do not name, have demonstrated that the miniature magnets "...are remarkable effective in relieving a multitude of health problems." "Records show" (but where they show it, we are not told) that "many who thought they would have to stay on drugs for the rest of their life, have been off them ever since they started using micro-magnets...."

Testimonials follow from a dozen people identified only by their initials; almost all describe relief from arthritis.

I wrote to International Health, politely requesting their references, the names of the Japanese hospitals, the names of the relieved sufferers, the names of investigators, the names of their medical directors, the difference between their magnets and the magnets you can buy from Edmond Scientific for ten cents each, and a copy of their instructions.

I received a prompt reply ignoring all my requests except the one for instructions, and a package of 10 tiny magnets 4 millimeters across, each attached to a little round band-aid. The package insert, poorly translated from an Oriental language whose characters decorate the page, states that the "magnetic force may improve the blood circulation... and thus remarkably relieve muscular pain and stiffness."

Then again, it may not, as we know from the history of quackery, particularly the rush of magnetic pills, drinks, belts, beds, and what not that followed the discovery of electromagnetism 200 years ago. Nor would applying magnets to the acupuncture points carefully pictured have any known effects on constipation, insomnia, migraine, impotence, performance (lack of) or any other of the 53 problems listed.

In the interests of science, I applied a magnet to my chronically sore back; sad to say, the next day my back hurt worse than ever.

The whole thing is touching evidence of how vulnerable to quackery are people with chronic illnesses, particularly arthritis; how popular are any junk therapies that have the merit of not involving drugs; and how weak are our mail fraud laws.