FTC Charges Dietary Supplement Companies with False Online Advertising for Treatments of AIDS, Other Conditions
The Federal Trade Commission yesterday announced a "crackdown" on six dietary supplement companies, charging the firms with making "false and potentially dangerous" claims about their products on the Internet, Reuters Health reports (Zwillich, Reuters Health, 6/14). According to the New York Post, the "virtual snake-oil salesmen" advertized their products as "cures" for a number of diseases, including cancer, AIDS, arthritis, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease (Blomquist, New York Post, 6/15). Under consent decrees negotiated with the FTC, four companies agreed, without "admitting wrongdoing," to halt false advertising and offer refunds to consumers. In addition, the FTC signed a similar deal with MaxCell BioScience Inc. and fined the company $150,000 for selling products that allegedly "reversed the aging process." The FTC also filed a complaint in federal court against Western Dietary Products Co. for making false advertising claims and selling a device called the "Zapper Electrical Unit" to "treat and cure" Alzheimer's disease and AIDS (Gugliotta, Washington Post, 6/15). "Today's Internet is a vital health care resource. Unfortunately, the Internet is also a convenient medium for those who prey on sick and vulnerable consumers," FTC Chair Timothy Muris said (Ho, AP/Akron Beacon Journal, 6/15). FTC officials said that the six cases represented the "most egregious" of more than 1,200 "questionable" Web sites (Reuters Health, 6/14). In addition to economic fraud, FTC officials worry that "misleading" advertising could discourage individuals from seeking medical treatment or prompt them to use herbal supplements that may "interfere" with their prescription drug regimens (Winter, New York Times, 6/15).
The Laundry List
Among the six cases, the FTC charged Panda Herbal International with making false claims about St. John's wort and failing to warn consumers that the herb, used as an antidepressant, can "inhibit the effects of other drugs," including AIDS medications. The agency also cited ForMor International for making false claims about St. John's wort and for "claiming" that colloidal silver, a solution with silver in suspension, could treat more than 650 diseases, including arthritis, blood poisoning and whooping cough. In addition, the FTC cited Aaron Co. for false claims about colloidal silver and for "failure to warn of the dangers" of ephedra, a "powerful" stimulant that may prompt rapid breathing, seizure, stroke and death. Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association, said, "We appreciate this action by the FTC" (Washington Post, 6/15). Blaming the "questionable claims" on "unscrupulous dealers," he added, "I see this as good news for responsible companies. These products are a problem for all of us, and we'd like to see them gone" (Reuters Health, 6/14).
The FTC action marks the latest in a joint effort with the FDA -- Operation Cure.All -- to "broaden their reach" in "stepping up enforcement actions" against companies that sell "fraudulent" health products over the Internet. According to the New York Times, regulators began the "unusual" joint effort after they "realized that neither agency had the capacity to stamp out health fraud on the Web," a problem that has "mushroomed" in recent years. "It's bad enough when someone, with little or no evidence, touts unproven remedies. ... It's even more frightening when they do so despite, and without so much as a mention of, emerging risks that those remedies pose," Walter Carr, a chair of the FDA's National AIDS Health Fraud Task Force Network, which supports the joint effort, said (Winter, New York Times, 6/15). However, according to Sidney Wolfe of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, the groups' efforts are "probably not enough." He said, "Neither [the FDA nor the FTC] have the kind of enforcement clout that they should have" (Harris, "All Things Considered," NPR, 6/14). FTC lawyer Michelle Rusk agreed, concluding, "Even with all of us working together, we will never completely put an end to Internet health fraud" (New York Times, 6/14). The FTC action also marks the latest of "several blemishes" on the dietary supplement industry in recent months. Under current law, the industry does not have to submit products to the FDA for approval or report adverse reactions suffered by patients using the products (Washington Post, 6/15).