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A Fearless Fight for a Safer World

Working hard to protect and promote the health of consumers over decades of dramatic and tumultuous change has long been a deeply held mission for Consumer Reports. Many of the battles we waged were daring, groundbreaking—and prescient.

(Read the essay by Leana S. Wen, M.D., "A New Vision of True Health," and, in our 80th-anniversary year, the special report, "Food Fights, Fouls & Victories.")

1930s

May 1936: Blowing bubbles. Overpromises were a huge part of many products’ sales pitches. Case in point: Alka-Seltzer. Promoted as a cure-all for everything from colds and headache to fatigue and alcohol excess, we debunked the notion that the effervescent tablet is “some new and startling remedy.” In reality, the active ingredient is ordinary aspirin, and the ballyhooed bubbling comes from a combination of citric acid and baking soda.

July 1936: Feel the burn. Though the medical community had yet to definitively link sun exposure and cancer, we tested “sunburn preventives” to see which protected skin. Most failed miserably on that count, and we didn’t even dignify with testing outlandish claims such as those from Mor-Tan, which purported to prevent windburn, freckles, and poison ivy. (Read our recent report, "Shining a Light on 'Natural' Sunscreen")

August 1936: Toxins for sale. The best-selling book “100,000,000 Guinea Pigs” (Grosset & Dunlap, 1933), by Frederick Schlink, founder of Consumers’ Research (forerunner of Consumer Reports), and its director, Arthur Kallet, exposed dangers in everyday products. As part of the same effort, we published a blacklist of more than 100 dangerous drugs and cosmetics, including Anacin, Ex-Lax, Mary T. Gordon’s Gray Hair Restorer, and Ruppert’s Face Bleach. The products contained ingredients such as strychnine,arsenic, chloroform, mercury, and lead; some led to fatal poisonings.

December 1936: Hold the vitamins. At a time when ads touted various vitamin-fortified foods as a panacea, we pointed out that there was little available research into the body’s need for specific amounts of certain vitamins, and warned that overdoses could cause arterial damage or even death.

May 1937: Say “no” to nose drops. One of our earliest advocacy campaigns focused on halting the sometimes deadly practice of administering mineral-oil nose drops to children for congestion. We also warned of a similar aspiration hazard of forcing fats and oils—like the popular cod-liver oil—into the mouths of children. As a result of our coverage, the New York City Board of Health issued a general warning against the use of nasal oil in children under age 2.

November 1937: Tummy troubles. About one in 10 Americans habitually used remedies for chronic constipation. We reported on them frequently (including a four-part series in 1937), concluding that the products and their overuse “have contributed more to the ills and discomforts of mankind than the condition they’re supposed to relieve.”

September 1939: Taking a stand. Following a National Health Conference, which revealed that one-third of Americans lacked healthcare or access to treatment, we made a pitch for universal coverage. “In a democracy, the welfare of every individual counts, and every life is valuable. If we are unable to overcome poverty, unable to provide a job for every man and woman willing to work and to guarantee a decent standard of living to everybody, we are collectively responsible for such a condition.” (Read "Your Doctor Could Help You Cut Healthcare Costs")

1940s

May 1944: Insomnia “cures.” We cited “repressed anxiety” as a major culprit and urged doctors to refer patients to counseling. We supported “a cocktail, bath, or dull book” for mild cases, but acknowledged that sufferers might need medication. The drugs of the day were potentially dangerous barbiturates, sometimes available over the counter; we recommended use only under a physician’s care. (Read our recent report, "Why Americans Can't Sleep."

June 1946: Not so fast. When a Bayer aspirin ad in the Saturday Evening Post promised immediate pain relief and claimed its aspirin could dissolve in water in 2 seconds, we decided to test the claim. We found that Bayer didn’t dissolve faster than other aspirins and reported that any aspirin took 15 minutes to 30 minutes to relieve a headache. The only difference: Bayer’s price was “uniquely high.”

October 1947: Forget the flu shot. The vaccines were considered “highly experimental,” so we urged most people to skip the shot that year. Before the end of the following year, we said, it was possible that preventive measures would be on much sounder footing.

1950s

July 1950: Speaking out about STDs. Thanks largely to the antibiotic penicillin, there was progress in combating syphilis, gonorrhea, and other sexually transmitted diseases. The taboo subject began to get coverage in the press, which we lauded for “penetrating the curtain of ignorance, shame, and silence” behind which those diseases could thrive. In 1949, syphilis alone killed 13,000 people in the U.S. We called on states to provide adequate diagnostic resources to identify who was infected.

July 1952: Lax laxatives. Hucksters hyped a constipation remedy as a get-thin-quick miracle in a tablet made with methylcellulose, a gum. Marketers also promoted it as a hunger suppressant because of its ability to swell in the stomach when taken with water. We called it out as a fad.

February 1955: The smoking gun. We first reported on the probable dangers of smoking in 1938. By 1953 we deemed the evidence “very suggestive” between heavy smoking and lung cancer. Two years later, as death rates continued to climb, we were further convinced that smoking was related to cancer and possibly other health problems, such as heart trouble and ulcers. (Read our report, "E-cigarette Facts You Need to Know."

March 1956: Victory against polio. In 1954 we optimistically stated that medical science was on the verge of conquering polio. Two years later we announced, “The development of the Salk polio vaccine is one of the great public health achievements of this century.”

July 1957: The air up there. The air in many of our great cities was becoming unfit to breathe, we warned, pointing to pollution from cigarette smoke, industrial growth, and our dependence on heating and motor fuels. We worried that dirty air would, over time, lead to lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, and other diseases. We called on the auto industry to develop exhaust controls for its vehicles.

1960s

June 1960: Insuring seniors. As health costs spiraled out of control, particularly for hospital services, Congress and Consumer Reports debated the best way to help seniors. “It is becoming increasingly likely that the solution to this huge problem is not going to be found with anything less than a national program,” we said, despite opposition from many groups, including the American Medical Association and the Health Insurance Association of America. In July 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law legislation that created two national health-insurance programs, Medicare and Medicaid.

July 1960: A plea for safer drugs. In testimony before a Senate subcommittee, Consumers Union’s editorial director, Mildred Brady, called on officials to do a better job of policing the marketplace for substandard medications. She also skewered big pharma before it was fashionable, saying that the industry’s scare tactics against less expensive generic drug alternatives were rooted in self-interest and designed to keep prices high because of a lack of competition.

September 1962: Nuclear nightmare. In 1959 we reported that nuclear fallout from atomic-bomb testing was getting into milk in the form of radioactive strontium-90, feared to cause bone cancer and leukemia. Three years later additional bomb testing by the Soviets led to increased fallout in milk as iodine-131, which could over time lead to thyroid cancer. Our work exposing the dangers prompted the government to expand its monitoring of fallout and helped bolster public support for the 1963 nuclear test-ban treaty.

October 1962: Thalidomide scare. Though thalidomide, a sleeping pill, was never approved for sale in the U.S., thousands of women who took it early in pregnancy gave birth to children with deformities including malformed limbs. We supported the swift movement of legislation that would demand that drugmakers do more thorough premarket testing, implement tighter manufacturing controls, and insist on fuller disclosure of side effects.

October 1963: Antibiotics advocacy. Consumer Reports had long said that over-the-counter products should not contain antibiotics, so we applauded the Food and Drug Administration for ordering the makers of such lozenges, nose drops, deodorants, mouthwashes, and lotions to submit proof of the products’ effectiveness or take them off the market. (Read our special report "The Rise of Superbugs."

August 1964: Contraceptives to count on. Before the sexual revolution was in full swing, our medical consultants rated family planning methods based on statistics that showed how well they protected against accidental pregnancy. Highly effective: condoms and diaphragms plus a spermicidal cream or jelly. As for the birth-control pill, our attitude was “cautious acceptance,” though we noted ongoing questions about its safety and efficacy.

May 1966: Keeping doctors honest. While Congress investigated the questionable practices of physicians who made money from the sale of drugs, eyeglasses, and medical devices they themselves had prescribed, we suggested that consumers insist on a written prescription and have it filled independently. (Read our recent report "What You Don't Know About Your Doctor Could Hurt You.")

October 1967: Mood meds. With doctors writing more than 33 million prescriptions per year for antianxiety, antipsychotic, and antidepressant drugs, we asked, “Is anything much being accomplished?” We evaluated the research behind those drugs, noting potential side effects and providing safety cautions. And we praised antipsychotic drugs for helping to reduce the number of psychiatric hospitalizations.

September 1968: Screen shots. Our engineers Rated two television sets, an Admiral and a Packard Bell, Not Acceptable for exceeding radiation levels generally accepted as the safe maximum. We told consumers not to worry about radiation seeping through walls or floors but cautioned them (and their kids) not to habitually sit closer than 6 feet from a “large” screen (18 inches or more).

1970s

March 1970: Poison paint. Though manufacturers stopped making interior paint with high lead concentrations in the 1950s, poisonings among children remained high, with most cases traced to lead paint flakes in old dwellings. Still, many products on the market contained appreciable amounts of lead, so we called on manufacturers to reveal the actual lead content on all of their paints.

November 1972: Writing the book on drugs. Our breakthrough book “Licit and Illicit Drugs” (Little, Brown and Company, 1972), by medical writer Edward M. Brecher, was a compendium on the effects of mind-altering drugs from narcotics to nicotine on individuals and society. The New York Times described it as a “towering work of scholarship.”

January 1974: Platform shoes hit a low. Platform shoes were high fashion but also quite hazardous. Aside from risk of falls, we warned that the rigid soles impeded the foot’s normal flexing, straining ankles, knees, and hips, and possibly causing backaches, poor posture, and pulled muscles. Our advice: “For consumers who already own platform shoes: Walk slowly. Our advice for those who have resisted the temptation: Walk proud.”

September 1974: How to choose a hospital. When choosing a doctor, it’s important to consider the hospital he or she admits patients to. We urged consumers to look for a facil­ity that’s accredited, with our highest praise reserved for teaching or government-sponsored hospitals affiliated with medical schools. (Read our special report "How Your Hospital Can Make You Sick."

March 1975: Pot position. “The time has come to take a fresh look at the dangers of marijuana,” we wrote after concluding that research failed to prove that pot is either harmful or harmless. But we were certain that possession should be decriminalized, making us one of the first national organizations to say so. (Read our recent report "Up in Smoke: Does Medical Marijuana Work?")

October 1975: Chiropractic controversy. In a two-part series that prompted picketing of our headquarters, we assessed the benefits and risks of spinal manipulation. Our conclusion: Licensing laws lend an aura of legitimacy to unscientific practices designed to protect practitioners rather than the public. We called for state and federal restrictions on the services chiropractors could provide.

October 1979: Best condoms. Our lab tests of condoms—which included inflating them with air until they popped, among other measures—found all 161 models acceptable. We endorsed condom use and included a guide to proper usage.

1980s

August 1983: Healing heartburnWith Rolaids and Tums on the candy rack next to Life Savers, antacid addiction became a concern. We reported that overuse merely sugarcoated a stomach problem, and abuse could aggravate gastrointestinal problems and mask other potentially serious ones. We recommended using antacids no more than once per week.

January 1984: Sex after 50. “Love, Sex, and Aging” (Little, Brown and Company, 1984), written by Edward Brecher and the editors of Consumer Reports, was based on a five-year survey about the sexual attitudes and activities of 4,246 people over age 50. “For those comfortable with honest, open language, this book affirms the potential for enjoyment and sexual fulfillment for people from age 50 into the 80s,” we said.

March 1985: Antibiotics for animals. More than 40 percent of the antibiotics produced in the U.S. go into animal feed to boost growth, we revealed. (Today that number is a staggering 80 percent.) Our position then and now: Antibiotic overuse and misuse is a big problem, diminishing the effectiveness of drugs such as penicillin to treat human disease and creating strains of new bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. (Read our report "How to Stop the Overuse of Antibiotics in Our Food Supply."

May 1986: Toxic-shock warning. Toxic shock, a condition mostly associated with menstruating women who used “superabsorbent” tampons, proved deadly. In 1982 the FDA recommended that women who use tampons buy those with the lowest absorbency needed. Trouble was, one brand’s “regular” could be more absorbent than another’s “super plus,” so we urged the FDA to issue a uniform standard. (They did so in 1989.)

November 1986: Fear of AIDS. Though the disease—and public fears—were spreading, we dispelled the myth that AIDS was spread through casual contact. We also made it clear that both heterosexuals and homosexuals were at risk. Three years later we published a safety guide for teens by Karen Hein, M.D., with art by Keith Haring.

1990s

July 1990: Genetic testing forecast. Though the day may not be far off when we can forecast illness years in advance of the appearance of symptoms, we reported in a cover story called “The Telltale Gene,” we pointed out that a danger of discrimination casts a troubling pall over genetic tests. Unless society can protect the rights of individuals, we said, predictive testing could swell the ranks of the uninsured.

July 1992: Squandered spending. Of the $817 billion that Americans were expected to spend on healthcare, we said in the first of a three-part series on healthcare, at least $200 billion will be squandered on overpriced, useless, even harmful treatments, and on feeding a bloated bureaucracy. If those wasted dollars were redirected, we asserted, the U.S. could cover all of the people who were then uninsured without spending a penny more.

January 1993: Insurance action. Many big health insurers were changing to for-profit entities—and rewarding executives and shareholders with the spoils. We successfully fought the trend in 36 states so that open hearings were required to consider whether those actions were in consumers’ interest. If the deal was approved, an independent foundation must be created with the assets. Today, more than 300 such foundations hold $26 billion in value—funds used to support public education and prevention efforts, and tobacco-control initiatives.

January 1995: Secondhand smoke. As evidence mounted regarding the dangers of secondhand smoke from breathing other people’s cigarettes, Big Tobacco played the same denial game as it had for years about the dangers of smoking. We skewered the industry, reporting that, “A number of studies make a consistent case that secondhand smoke, like firsthand smoke, causes lung cancer.”

February 1997: Focus on ADD. Attention deficit disorder was hailed as a diagnosis that finally explained the personal struggle of millions—but it was also denounced as a label that could be applied too hastily by parents, teachers, and doctors. We warned about the overuse of Ritalin to calm an overactive child, encouraging the use of a combination of therapies: behavior mod­ification, psychological help, and class­room assistance, as well as medication.

August 1997: Mad cow mania. When the FDA issued rules to thwart the fatal brain illness, we complained that the agency—though prohibiting feeding cattle and sheep remains to other cattle and sheep—didn’t go far enough because it failed to impose a ban on chicken, horse, and pig remains in animal feed. (Read our report "How Safe Is Your Ground Beef."

October 1999: Drugstores undercover. Our drugstores Ratings accompanied an expose of websites selling dangerous drugs that were claimed to help drop pounds, grow hair, and improve your love life, without seeing a doctor. And in our undercover investigation, many pharmacists failed to warn our secret shoppers when they bought a potentially dangerous combination: the prescription drug warfarin (Coumadin) and ginkgo biloba supplements that, when taken together, could increase the risk of serious bleeding and possibly cause a stroke.

2000s

June 2001: Jock jam. Americans spent $1.4 billion in 1999 on pills, drinks, and powders to bulk up, slim down, or become better athletes. The few good scientific studies suggested the products didn’t work or only gave athletes a slight edge. Worse, we said, some contain potentially harmful substances. Two years later we helped to pass legislation in California banning supplements with ephedra, an herbal stimulant that acts like an amphetamine. In 2004 the FDA banned the sale of supplements containing ephedra.

August 2001: Vaccines backlash. Our investigation found significant gaps in the system for monitoring the safety of vaccines; that the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were slow to address correctable problems, such as the use of mercury as a preservative; and that adversarial treatment of those who sought compensation for bad reactions was fueling the growing chorus of anti-vaccination forces. (Read our report "The Truth About Vaccines."

January 2003: Hospital safety. Our hospitals survey of 21,000 subscribers revealed enormous variations in treatment. Those who were less than highly satisfied (22 percent) complained about unanswered calls for help, inadequate pain relief, pressure to leave the hospital too soon, or complications related to hospitalization. Six percent reported that they had developed an infection while in the hospital or shortly after. We began our Safe Patient Project campaign to push hospitals to publicly report their infection rates, which is now mandatory in some states. (See our hospital ratings by state.)

December 2003: A dark diet drug. We raised a red flag about the prescription weight-loss drug sibutramine (Meridia), writing that since 1998 the FDA had received reports of 49 deaths from heart disease that were linked to use of the drug. Our medical consultants advised not to use it or other weight-loss medications because none had been proved safe or effective long-term. (It took until 2010 for Meridia to be taken off the market.)

November 2004: Sharing side effects. We launched our Prescription for Change campaign, which, among other issues, advocated for landmark federal legislation (passed in 2007) that prevented drug companies from downplaying harmful side effects. The cornerstone of the law required clinical drug trial results be made public so that consumers could know the good and bad news about meds.

December 2004: Best Buy Drugs debuts. Consumer Reports was awarded a grant to educate consumers about prescription drugs for common health conditions based on their effectiveness, safety, and price, and to help patients talk to their doctors about the most effective and affordable treatment options.

February 2005: The trouble with tanning. Millions of Americans were lured to tanning salons by bogus claims that indoor tanning was safer than sunlight. Our survey of 296 salons exposed widespread failures to inform customers of risks, including wrinkles and skin cancer, or to enforce safety procedures such as wearing goggles. The industry, we concluded, was minimally regulated and a danger to consumers. (Regulations came later, in 2015.)

September 2006: Bad nursing homes. Almost 20 years after a landmark federal law was passed to improve the nation’s nursing homes, a Consumer Reports probe revealed that poor care remained all too common. Our analysis of state inspection reports for 16,000 nursing homes nationwide led to the CR Nursing Home Quality Monitor, a list of the best and worst homes by state.

May 2008: Full disclosure. Consumer Reports launched its Health Ratings Center, which shares data about doctors and hospitals that were previously undisclosed or so complex as to be indecipherable. An editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine described the release of heart surgeon performance data as a “watershed event in health care accountability.”

September 2008: Hospital mistakes. We lauded a new federal law that penalized hospitals for mistakes such as leaving sponges in patients after surgery or giving them the wrong blood type. Previously, Medicare, private insurers, or patients were usually billed for the extra care required to recover from errors. (Read our "5 Common Medical Mistakes to Avoid in the Hospital."

March 2010: Deadly infections. Doctors once considered central line-associated bloodstream infections an unavoidable risk of intensive care, but we publicized research that showed patients could be spared if hospitals followed a checklist of hygienic precautions. By 2014 the CDC had found a 50 percent decrease in those infections, saving thousands of lives. (Read our special report "How Your Hospital Can Make You Sick."

May 2012: Joint effort. Tens of millions of Americans live with medical devices—artificial joints, surgical mesh, heart defibrillators—but rarely were they tested for safety and effectiveness. Congress did not heed our call for testing, among other reforms. But public support did help prevent further weakening of FDA oversight.

June 2012: ODing on good intentions. Overprescribing drugs and ordering excessive tests and procedures can be hazardous to your health—and your wallet, we reported. Working with a coalition of medical organizations in a project dubbed Choosing Wisely, we identified tests and treatments that were done too often, such as antibiotics for sinusitis.

December 2014: A beautiful deathOur multimedia feature on palliative care helped families navigate the difficult decisions surrounding end-of-life care and was nominated for a National Magazine Award.

August 2015: The rise of superbugs. Dangerous antibiotic-resistant infections were growing stronger, we warned in an award-winning three-part series. It’s a mess of our own making due in part to overprescription, leading to infections that can cause serious illness and death. 

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the July 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.



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