Mechanical devices that miraculously treat the pain of arthritis, herbal remedies that ward off AIDS, mysterious elixirs that cure cancer -- these are among the incredible claims made on more than 1,200 Internet sites targeted by an international coalition of public and private health and consumer protection and information agencies worldwide. In the first International Health Claim Surf Day, 80 agencies and organizations from 25 countries "surfed" the Internet looking for Web sites containing potentially false or deceptive advertising claims about the treatment, cure or prevention of six major diseases -- arthritis, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and multiple sclerosis. These Web sites were sent e-mail messages warning that advertisers must have reliable scientific evidence to back up their health claims. Web site designers may also be liable for making or disseminating deceptive or false claims, the Federal Trade Commission warned.
"Deceptive claims about serious diseases are worse than electronic snake oil," said Jodie Bernstein, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "This hokum can actually hurt people. Billions of dollars are wasted on unproven, deceptively marketed 'miracle cures.' And bogus remedies that cause consumers to forgo or delay proven treatment can harm consumers' health."
"More and more people are turning to the Internet to find treatments for serious, life threatening diseases," said Gary Dykstra, the Food and Drug Administration's Deputy Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs. "It is a powerful medium that can provide consumers easy access to information that can help them manage their health. It also provides promoters of fraudulent health products and treatments easy access to consumers from all over the world. Health fraud not only waste consumers' money, but can also cause death or injury."
"The Internet is a tremendous resource for consumers to use in improving their health and in partnering with their doctors or healthcare providers to better manage their treatment, especially for long-term conditions," said David Baker, Senior Publishing Advisor (Internet) and healthfinder® Webmaster, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Department of Health and Human Services. "However, not all the information on the Internet is reliable--consumers should not rely on a single source for health information, and they should discuss the information that they find with their healthcare providers. It is also important to judge the quality of health information they locate on the Internet by the reliability of the organizations that provide it."
An estimated $10 billion is spent yearly on unproven arthritis remedies, making people with arthritis prime targets for unproven health claims, according to the Arthritis Foundation. "Our Surf Day participants identified numerous Web sites promoting a wide variety of unproven 'cures' and devices for arthritis, and we know a multitude of similar sites are still out there," said Angela McMillan, Director of Interactive Resources for the Arthritis Foundation. "Nearly 43 million Americans cope daily with the pain and limitations arthritis can bring, and protecting them from the unproven remedy market is an ongoing concern. Any unproven remedy, no matter how harmless, can become harmful if it stops or delays someone from seeking a prescribed treatment program from a knowledgeable physician. Fortunately, there are many things people with arthritis can do to make life with arthritis easier and less painful. The first course of action is contacting the Arthritis Foundation to get reliable information."
According to the Association of Cancer Online Resources, cancer touches the lives of every American. In 1998, more than 1.2 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer and more than 550,000 are expected to die from cancer. "Cancer treatments are complex. In managing their conditions, cancer patients and their loved ones must have access to basic scientific and clinical information and the most recent scientific developments," said Gilles Frydman, President of ACOR, a large not-for-profit organization that provides support and information to cancer patients and their care givers. "It is also important to know how to evaluate promotional claims on the Internet. ACOR's experience demonstrates that the Internet can be a powerful tool in empowering patients and their care givers by directing them to state of the art treatments and ongoing clinical trials. Unfortunately, the Internet can also be easily used by fraudulent marketers to promote unproven treatments to desperate people. Unproven regimens can cause cancer patients to lose precious time, which can ultimately cost them their lives. This Surf Day event will help patients and their care givers become aware of the pitfalls of the Internet as they use this unique tool in managing their health."
"The Internet Healthcare Coalition is pleased to have been asked to participate in the 1998 International Health Claim Surf Day," said Mark Boulding, spokesman for IHC, a nonprofit organization with a diverse membership whose mission is to promote quality healthcare resources on the Internet through education and community-building. "By raising awareness of information quality issues, Surf Day helps consumers and professionals make the best use of the Internet for online health care."
The FTC offers these tips to avoid health fraud:
A free FTC brochure for consumers, "Fraudulent Health Claims: Don't Be Fooled," offers additional information regarding how to tell which health-related claims are likely to be legitimate. The FTC also has set up an e-mail address to collect complaints or comments about health claims on the Internet at firstname.lastname@example.org (no period).
International Health Claim Surf Day is the second "surf" for deceptive advertising of health remedies on the Internet. Last November the FTC partnered with other federal agencies, 18 state Attorney General's office, numerous non-profit health organizations and national health and consumer protection and information agencies from the United States, Canada and Mexico in North American Health Claim Surf Day. In addition to the FTC, North American partners in International Health Claim Surf Day include U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health Care Financing Administration, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Health Canada, Industry Canada, Procuraduria Federal del Consumidor of Mexico, Secretaria de Salud of Mexico, Mexico-U.S.-Canada Health Fraud Task Force, New Jersey U.S. Attorney's Office, Offices of the Attorney General of Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, Texas Department of Health, Kentucky Health Safety Task Force, Maryland AIDS Administration, Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, Arthritis Foundation, The Journal of the American Medical Association, Association of Cancer Online Resources, Better Business Bureau serving northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, Internet Healthcare Coalition, and the National Patient Safety Foundation.
Copies of "'Miracle' Health Claims: Add a Dose of Skepticism" are available from the FTC's web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC's Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 202-FTC-HELP (202-382-4357); TDD for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. To find out the latest news as it is announced, call the FTC NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710.