June 14, 2001 (Washington) -- Americans clicking onto the Internet for medical treatments may get a bottle of snake oil instead, according to Timothy Muris, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. Muris says more and more consumers who buy health products on the World Wide Web are running the risk of fraud.
To crack down on the problem, Muris announced six more FTC enforcement actions against companies marketing devices, herbal products, and dietary supplements aimed at treating everything from AIDS to Alzheimer's disease. Not only are many of these products ineffective, says the FTC, but they could be dangerous because of possible interactions with other drugs.
"Our message today is that consumers should avoid web sites that promise quick and dramatic cures for serious diseases. These claims are the hallmark of health fraud in both the real world and in cyberspace," said Muris at a news conference here Thursday.
This is the fourth phase of what the FTC calls "Operation Cure All." The agency was joined by the FDA as well as Canadian health officials in warning that the problem has become international in scope.
So it's critically important that the buyer beware.
"It's always a good idea to check with a doctor or pharmacist before purchasing a healthcare product," says Bernard Schwetz, DVM, PhD, acting principal deputy commissioner of the FDA.
Of the six actions taken, five companies agreed to settle with the FTC by changing the claims made on their web sites. In a number of cases, customers will actually get a refund. If there is a safety issue for a product, the web merchant will have to post new warning language on the product or in its advertising.
For example, the marketer of a supplement called "Longevity Signal Formula," which is reputed to reverse the aging process, was required by the FTC to refrain from "making unsubstantiated health claims." In addition, MaxCell BioScience Inc. must pay $150,000 to the FTC for "consumer redress."
Companies that sell St. John's wort as a safe treatment for HIV must include a warning that the herbal could actually undermine effective treatments for the disease.
Walter Carr, head of the National AIDS Health Fraud Task Force Network, says it's easy to be duped into thinking supplements could cure an incurable illness. "Sometimes it's the most educated that are just that desperate, because they know they don't have any other options," says Carr.
The FTC says that so-called colloidal silver treatments allegedly good for 650 conditions including acne, tuberculosis, and athlete's foot are totally unproven. An "electric zapper" also for sale on the Internet will have to recant its claim that "THIS IS NOT A TREATMENT FOR CANCER: IT'S A CURE."
One of the companies singled out is ForMor International. It's president, Stan Goss, tells WebMD "his conscience is clear," but settled to avoid a court battle with the FTC. "All we used in our advertising or in our brochures was third-party information that we quoted, but [the FTC] objected to some of it," says Goss.
He's agreed to refund the cost of the products in question, if his customers want. That's his standard policy, anyway. All told, the matter might cost Goss' company $500,000.
"The FTC is well within their authority and should go after those kinds of companies that makes these kinds of claims," David Seckman, executive director and CEO of the National Nutritional Foods Association, tells WebMD.