In his 750-square-foot basement home office in Allentown, Pa., Stephen Barrett, M.D., has 24 full four-drawer file cabinets, 2,000 books and 40 cubic feet of unfiled papers.
But these aren’t records from his 35-year psychiatric career from which he retired almost two years ago. These are materials from his other long-term, ongoing, semi-vocation: medical quackbuster.
The well-known consumer advocate is medical editor for Prometheus Books and editor emeritus of Nutrition Forum, a newsletter that emphasizes the exposure of fads, fallacies and quackery. In the last decade, he has coauthored or edited 38 data-intensive books, including The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America and his latest, a 548-page hardcover called The Vitamin Pushers: How the Health Food Industry is Selling America a Bill of Goods.
Barrett is also a board member of the National Council Against Health Fraud, scientific advisor to the American Council on Science and Health and a fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. In 1984, he received a Federal Drug Administration Commissioner’s Special Citation Award for Public Service in fighting nutrition quackery.
Born and raised in New York City, the former Eagle Scout and expert bridge player, now 62, attended medical school at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he was first exposed to and developed an interest in psychotherapy. “I’d always had an interest in science and I always liked to tinker and fix things,” he recalled. “So I thought, I’ll fix people.”
After an intensive clinical internship at a city hospital, he obtained a residency at Temple University Hospital and married a medical student he met on a blind date. After completing his three-year residency, he was drafted into the United States Air Force and served as chief of psychiatry at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, where he set up an elaborate treatment program for both military and civilian personnel.
Barrett said that all of the above positions were a “perfect fit” for him.
“I’m the sort of person by nature who has tried very much to shape his own life,” he explained. “One of several lessons that I took out of my psychotherapy training was that luck comes to a mind prepared.”
After living and working in San Francisco, he moved with his family back to Allentown in 1967, where he opened an office and also worked several part-time jobs. It was in 1969—after reading books about patent medicines and chiropractic—that his interest in medical quackery began.
“I became very angry about what I considered to be fraud,” he said, adding that he had done some work in probation and parole systems in San Francisco, in addition to enrolling in a correspondence course in law. “The books sensitized me to crime in the field of health.”
Why the intense interest in fighting crime? “People always ask me if I was ever personally injured in any way but I never have been,” he said. “My motivation had nothing to do with some trauma. All I know is I’ve always been very concerned with theft and robbery. I have always been extremely anti-crime.”
Within a year of reading the books, he organized a local discussion committee of doctors, lawyers and other interested parties, which grew into the Lehigh Valley Committee Against Health Fraud and met regularly for five years. Barrett then started working on a national level, and in 1977 he helped found the Southern California Council Against Health Fraud, which in 1984 became the National Council Against Health Fraud.
One of his favorite coups was the time he-with the help of the Pennsylvania Medical Society-evaluated 500 different national magazines. The year was 1977, and Barrett found 155 ads for health products and beauty aids sold by mail, such as wrinkle removers, weight loss aids, bust developers and penis enlargers, almost none of which could work as advertised.
“With few exceptions . . . if a product is sold by mail with health claims, it doesn’t work,” he concluded. He contacted the United States Postal Service and went to Washington, D.C., to meet with postal officials. “Eventually, my data became the basis of an article in Consumer Reports,” he said. “Congressional staffers saw it and decided to do something to close legal loopholes.”
In 1983, the Mail Order Consumer Protection Act was passed, giving the postal service greatly increased power to investigate and halt mail fraud. “Before, they couldn’t stop anybody; now, they’ve stopped almost everybody they go after,” said Barrett, adding that in 1990, he repeated his study and found that the number of magazines carrying “bad” health ads had gone down, as did the amount of space devoted to them.
And then there were the times he targeted homeopathic remedies, hair analysis labs, antifluoridation fanatics, vitamin pushers, primrose oil and many other practitioners and products, all this on top of his psychiatric practice and various part-time jobs at hospitals and clinics.
“Three years before I retired, I was working from morning until night, seven days a week,” he recalled. “I felt a little mentally tired, so I gave up psychiatry to get the last trace of scheduled activity removed from my life. I didn’t want to grind for a schedule anymore.”
Since then, he’s continued to work on books, give interviews to various media and act as a consultant to federal authorities.
“I’m taking it easier now and it feels good,” he said. ‘Tm sorting my files, going over research, giving interviews and waiting for two more book contracts. I’m kind of coasting at the moment.”
He said his biggest problem is all those unfiled papers and dealing with the “three feet” of mail that comes each week. “It’s a real battle,” he said, laughing. “I am running out of room. I’m not sure what I’m going to do about that.”
And what will the future bring? ‘Tm developing an investigation model for law officials to go after insurance fraud,” he said. “It’s a somewhat new direction.” Said Barrett, “I’ve had a very satisfying life. It’s a nice feeling.”
This article was posted on July 27, 2018.