Internet health fraud is the target of a comprehensive law enforcement and consumer education campaign announced today by the Federal Trade Commission at a press conference in Washington, D.C. The campaign, "Operation Cure.All," uses the Internet both as a law enforcement tool to stop bogus claims for products and treatments touted as cures for various diseases and as a communication tool to provide consumers with good quality health information. Four cases that resulted from the agency's "Health Claims Surf Day" were part of today's announcement. The companies settled FTC charges that the four web sites made deceptive and unsubstantiated health claims concerning "miracle cures" for serious illnesses: cancer, arthritis, heart disease, and liver disease, among others. Also unveiled at the press conference were valuable resources for consumers to use to obtain reliable health information on the Web.
"Quality, not quackery is the focus of our new campaign, "Operation Cure.All," said Jodie Bernstein, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "As consumers become more assertive about making their own health care decisions, the Internet offers a powerful tool for finding health information. Our survey of the web sites found that too many make deceptive, unproven and fraudulent claims. Miracle cures, once thought to be laughed out of existence, have found a new medium. Consumers now spend millions on unproven, deceptively marketed products on the Web. Our law enforcement efforts will continue to focus on deceptive and unproven claims. But limited resources cannot keep up with the proliferation of web sites promoting fraudulent products. Consumers must be provided with reliable resources so that they can use the Internet to find the support and health care information they need."
Bernstein said that nearly 22.3 million adults in this country sought health and medical information online as of December 1998, making health and medical content the sixth most commonly accessed type of information on the Web. Twenty-nine percent of all Americans looked to the Internet for medical information and nearly 70 percent of those searching for health care information on the Web, do so before visiting a doctor's office, she said. Most online consumers search for information about diseases, and about one out of four of these consumers joins an online support group. Cancer-related searches are the most frequently sought disease category, followed by heart disease.
At the press conference, Bernstein outlined the charges in the four cases, gave the results of "Health Claims Surf Days," which the agency conducted with public health, consumer protection and information agencies from 25 countries, including the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and introduced two new FTC Consumer Alerts, titled "Fraudulent Health Claims: Don't Be Fooled" and "Virtual 'Treatments' Can Be Real-World Deceptions."
Also appearing at today's event was Dr. Mary Jo Deering, Director of Health Communication and Telehealth at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Deering spoke on behalf of healthfinder, the federal consumer health information gateway, and the HHS Science Panel on Interactive Communication and Health. The panel has issued a report that presents specific guidance for promoting sound, appropriate assessment of this emerging field.
"The Internet is an important new tool for promoting health and spreading the prevention message. But with so many consumers relying on health information from the Web, we need to ensure that what they find is sound. www.healthfinder.gov is the federal gateway for reliable information. It provides specific resources to educate people about fraud and quackery and how to find and evaluate information on the Web," said Dr. David Satcher, Assistant Secretary for Health and Surgeon General.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also has a website, located at www.fda.gov, which is another valuable source of accurate and unbiased information. "The Internet can be a very powerful and useful tool for consumers - but it must be used carefully," said Gary Dykstra, FDA's Deputy Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs. "In particular, consumers need to check out medical products or services offered on the Internet with physicians, pharmacists and other health care professionals. FDA is committed to working with the FTC, and with healthcare and consumer groups to help broaden consumer awareness about the Internet - its potential benefits and possible risks."
The FTC conducted two Health Claim Surf Days, one in 1997 and the other in 1998. The surf days identified approximately 800 World Wide Web sites and numerous Usenet newsgroups that contain questionable promotions for products or services purporting to help cure, treat or prevent six diseases: heart disease, cancer, AIDS, diabetes, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. After each Surf Day, web sites were sent e-mail messages, alerting them that their claims require scientific substantiation and that disseminating false or unsubstantiated claims violates federal law. Following the e-mail, FTC staff surveyed a representative sample of the 1998 sites and found that 28 percent of the sites had either removed their claims or had been taken down. Bernstein said that the agency is very encouraged by the fact that over a hundred sites making questionable claims voluntarily cleaned up their act, but warned that the agency will continue to monitor the Web for fraud and deception and bring law enforcement cases as appropriate.
In the four FTC cases announced today, the companies were charged with making unsubstantiated health claims for products advertised on the Internet. The companies agreed to settle the charges and the proposed settlement agreements were announced today for public comment.
According to the agency, John Sneed and Melinda Sneed d/b/a Arthritis Pain Care Center (APCC) marketed CMO, purportedly a fatty acid derived from beef tallow, to distributors and consumers. APCC claimed that CMO cures most forms of arthritis by permanently modifying the immune system, and that the product is beneficial in treating numerous other diseases. The complaint alleges that APCC's efficacy claims are unsubstantiated and that the claims about certain scientific studies, including studies at the National Institutes of Health, are false. The proposed settlement would resolve the charges by prohibiting APCC from making unsubstantiated claims for CMO. The company also would be prevented from making unsubstantiated health claims for any food, drug, dietary supplement or program and from misrepresenting the results of any tests or research.
Body Systems Technology, Inc. (BST) sells to consumers shark cartilage capsules as well as capsules and liquid containing a Peruvian plant derivative, Cat's Claw, the agency charged. The company promoted them as effective treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, and arthritis, and represented to consumers that scientific studies established their efficacy. In fact, according to the FTC, the claims are unsubstantiated. The proposed consent order would prohibit similar unsubstantiated claims for any product or program and also would bar BST from making unsubstantiated health claims for any food, drug, dietary supplement or program. Additionally, the proposed order would require BST to identify, notify, and make refunds to all purchasers of these products during a proscribed period of time, the agency said.
Magnetic Therapeutic Technologies, Inc. and Jim B. Richardson (MTT) promote magnetic therapy devices, using testimonials to help extol their purported ability to treat and alleviate a multitude of medical problems and diseases, including various types of cancer and high blood pressure. According to the FTC's complaint, MTT made unsubstantiated claims that its magnetic therapy products are effective in treating various cancers, HIV and other diseases and health conditions. The proposed consent order would prohibit MTT from making similar unsubstantiated claims for magnetic therapy products and other unsubstantiated claims about health benefits, performance or efficacy of any product or program.
Pain Stops Here! Inc. and Sande R. Caplin (PSH), also promoted magnetic therapy devices and made disease treatment claims for its devices. This company operates in a similar manner as MTT, the FTC said. PSH markets magnetic therapy devices as effective in treating a variety of ailments, including cancer, liver disease, and arthritis. The complaint challenges ten claims as unsubstantiated. The proposed consent order would prohibit PSH from making similar unsubstantiated efficacy claims for magnetic therapy products, as well as any other unsubstantiated claims about the performance, safety, efficacy, or health benefits of any product or program. It also would prohibit PSH from misrepresenting the results of any scientific studies or research.
Bernstein offered consumers the following tips for evaluating any health claim. She said if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. She also said to be on the lookout for the typical phrases and marketing techniques fraudulent promoters use to deceive consumers.
- The product is advertised as a quick and effective cure-all for a wide range of ailments.
- The promoters use words like scientific breakthrough, miraculous cure, exclusive product, secret ingredient or ancient remedy.
- The text is written in "medicalese" - impressive-sounding terminology to disguise a lack of good science.
- The promoter claims the government, the medical profession or research scientists have conspired to suppress the product.
- The advertisement includes undocumented case histories claiming amazing results.
- The product is advertised as available from only one source.
Bernstein also expressed the agency's appreciation for the assistance of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, San Diego Field Office; Health Canada; Secretaria de Salud of Mexico; the Office of the Texas Attorney General and the North Carolina Attorney General; the Texas Department of Health; and the California Department of Health, San Diego Office in " Operation Cure.All."
The Commission vote to approve the proposed settlements for public comment was 4-0.
A summary of each of the proposed consent agreements will be published in the Federal Register shortly. They will be subject to public comment for 60 days, after which the Commission will decide whether to make them final. Comments should be addressed to the FTC, Office of the Secretary, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580.
NOTE: A consent agreement is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission of a law violation. When the Commission issues a consent order on a final basis, it carries the force of law with respect to future actions. Each violation of such an order may result in a civil penalty of $11,000.
Copies of the complaints, proposed consent agreements, and an analysis to aid public comment as well as the consumer education information are available from the FTC's web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC's Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357); 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.
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