The Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are warning Web site operators who suggest that their products will protect against, treat, or even cure Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that they are aware of no scientific proof for such claims and that the Web site operators must remove any misleading or deceptive claims from the Internet. A coordinated Internet "surf" found 48 sites touting a wide variety of SARS treatment or prevention products. The FTC also retrieved seven promotions for SARS products from its spam database. The two agencies sent warnings to Web site operators and e-mail solicitors, cautioning that it is against the law to make claims about SARS protection or treatment, or any other health benefit, without rigorous scientific support. The FTC and FDA staff will follow up by revisiting the targeted sites to determine whether the Web site operators have deleted or revised unproven claims.
The warning campaign is based on information gathered through an Internet surf that the FTC coordinated with the help of the FDA and the Ontario Ministry of Consumer and Business Services. Included in the review were Web sites that promised consumers would be protected from SARS if they purchased such items as personal air purifiers, disinfectant sprays and wipes, respirator masks, latex gloves, dietary supplements like colloidal silver and oregano oil, and SARS "prevention kits" that package various items together, such as gloves, masks, and wipes. Web sites may be subject to state or federal investigation or prosecution for making deceptive or misleading marketing claims that their products can treat, prevent, or cure SARS. Firms or individuals who violate the FTC Act could be subject to a federal district court injunction, enforceable through civil or criminal contempt proceedings, or an administrative cease and desist order, enforceable through civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation. Sellers also could be ordered to make consumer refunds. Operators who violate the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act by marketing unapproved drugs are liable to injunction and seizure of the illegal products.
"Scam artists follow the headlines, trying to make a fast buck with products that play off off the news," said Howard Beales, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Our message to e-marketers making deceptive claims is 'change your site to comply with the law.' At the same time, our message to consumers is 'hold on to your money.' No products have been found effective in preventing, treating, or curing SARS."
"Doctors and health care experts around the world are working hard to find treatments for SARS. Until they succeed, there any common sense actions people can take to protect themselves from SARS and other respiratory infections," said Mark B. McClellan, M.D., Ph.D., Commissioner of Food and Drugs. "Bogus products from questionable Web sites do no good, and can actually make matters worse by providing a false sense of protection. FDA will continue to work with the FTC and other consumer protection agencies to protect the public from SARS-related scams."
"It is truly unfortunate that at a time when people were feeling vulnerable, due to a major public health issue, that scam artists would prey on people's fears," said Tim Hudak, Minister of Consumer and Business Services in Ontario, Canada. "Seven members of our investigations and services staff worked on a surf-and-sweep, and within 48 hours 44 misleading sites were identified worldwide." The Minister added that this effort is yet another demonstration of the success of the Strategic Partnership on Cross-Border Telemarketing and Fraud in reducing scams and fraud in Canada and the United States.
In addition to the efforts of the FTC, FDA, and other authorities to crack down on SARS-related fraud, a broad coalition of trade associations representing the dietary supplement industry has issued a joint advisory recommending that marketers and retailers refrain from promoting dietary supplements as a preventive, cure, or treatment for SARS. According to that advisory, there are no dietary supplements that have been shown to prevent or treat SARS. The joint statement of the American Herbal Products Association, Consumer Healthcare Products Association, Council for Responsible Nutrition, National Nutritional Foods Association, and Utah Natural Products Alliance is available through those organizations' Web sites.
"Consumers, government, and responsible marketers and retailers share common ground. They all know there's no room for misleading claims about preventing, treating, or curing SARS," Beales said.
For consumers who visit Web sites or receive e-mails claiming to sell products to prevent or treat SARS, the FTC recommends:
The FTC has issued a consumer alert entitled "Rx For Products That Claim To Prevent SARS? A Healthy Dose of Skepticism," produced in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the FDA. The alert advises consumers to:
The FTC's efforts to combat unproven SARS remedies represents the most recent phase of the agency's ongoing effort to curb Internet health fraud. The agency has conducted several surfs to identify fraudulent health marketing in partnership with FDA and other law enforcement and public health authorities in the United States and elsewhere around the world. The FTC has focused its most recent crackdown on the marketers of products claiming to protect against biological, chemical, and nuclear terrorism attacks. As a follow up to its enforcement efforts against bogus terrorism defense products in 2001 and 2002, the FTC recently conducted another surf that resulted in the dissemination of 39 e-mail advisories to Web sites promoting dietary supplements and devices to prevent, treat, or cure ailments associated with biological, chemical, or nuclear agents. The FTC sent the warnings during the week of April 29, 2003, and the agency will be revisiting sites to evaluate the response. In addition, in March, the FTC sent 35 e-mail advisories to Web sites marketing potassium iodide products, urging them not to exaggerate the protective benefits of potassium iodide for use in nuclear emergencies, such as following a nuclear "dirty bomb" explosion. To date, the FTC has received positive responses from about 20 of these sites, indicating that they have modified or will modify certain claims made for their products.
The FDA is taking vigorous enforcement actions against firms marketing dietary supplements that claim to treat or prevent serious, chronic and life-threatening diseases, as well as smoking and alcohol abuse. Since the beginning of 2003, for example, the FDA has taken steps to ban the marketing of ephedra, and ordered two large-scale seizures of illegal dietary supplements, including $500,000 worth of products misrepresented by Young Again Nutrients in Spring, Texas, as enhancing "the body's natural production of Human Growth Factors and Insulin-like Growth Factor-1." In one of its warning letters issued today, the FDA informed the same firm that claiming that its product Better Immunity BETA 1,3/1,6 GLUCAN "strengthens the immune systems defenses against all infectious viral diseases, and possible SARS," violates the law and must be promptly corrected.
For more information from the federal government about treatments for SARS or protection from terrorism threats and public health preparedness, visit www.consumer.gov. or www.fda.gov. For more information from the FDA, call toll-free 1-800-INFO-FDA or visit www.fda.gov. Information on SARS and public health preparedness from the CDC is available at www.cdc.gov and also by telephone at 1-800-311-3435. To file a complaint or to get free information on consumer issues, call the FTC, toll free, at 1-877-FTC-HELP or use the complaint form at www.ftc.gov.
Copies of the press releases and consumer alerts are available from the FTC's and FDA's Web sites at http://www.ftc.gov and http:\\www.fda.gov and also from the FTC's Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N. W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint, or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1 877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.