Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Agencies Team Up in War Against Internet Health Fraud

by Linda Bren
…cures Alzheimer's and HIV/AIDS…proven effective in treating over 650 infectious diseases…recognized in scientific journals to be a revolutionary breakthrough in treating arthritis
These health product claims found on the Internet can provide hope for those suffering from painful or debilitating diseases. But they are false claims, leading to false hopes. They are also fraudulent, illegal, and the cause of recent government enforcement actions against the companies that made them.
In the ongoing war against Internet health fraud, federal and state government organizations have united, in an effort dubbed Operation Cure.All, to crack down on unscrupulous marketers who use the Internet to prey on the sickest and most vulnerable consumers.
Operation Cure.All, a partnership of the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, Health Canada (the Canadian federal health department), and various state attorneys general and state health departments, combines a law enforcement effort with a consumer education campaign.
Almost 100 million adults in the United States use the Internet to find health-related information, according to a poll conducted by the market research firm Harris Interactive. "The Internet provides many benefits. But, its unique qualities--including its broad reach, relative anonymity, and ease of creating new Web sites or removing old ones--pose new enforcement challenges," says Bernard A. Schwetz, D.V.M., Ph.D., acting principal deputy commissioner of the FDA. "FDA and the FTC are working together to protect the public from those who try to take advantage of consumers through this new technology."
In June, the FTC, which developed and leads Operation Cure.All, announced enforcement actions against six companies that fraudulently marketed health products on the Internet. These actions mark Operation Cure.All's fourth group of targeted enforcement efforts to address marketing of unproven health products on the Internet.
Five of the companies have agreed to settle the charges. Settlements included such actions as removal of all unsubstantiated claims for products, warnings about potential dangerous interactions with some prescription drugs, a notice to purchasers with an offer for a full refund, and agreement to pay fines for consumer redress. The FTC has filed a complaint in federal district court against the sixth company.
Among the many false and unsubstantiated claims challenged in these recent cases were promises that:
People could cancel their surgery, radiation or chemotherapy in favor of herbal cures that cost hundreds of dollars;
A device that delivered mild electric current would kill the parasites that cause such serious diseases as cancer and Alzheimer's; and
Those with HIV or AIDS could use St. John's wort as a safe treatment for the disease. (The FDA and FTC warn that St. John's wort may have potentially dangerous interactions with other medications, including some proven HIV/AIDS medications.)
"It's bad enough when someone, with little or no evidence, touts unproven remedies to vulnerable populations such as people infected with HIV or AIDS," says Walter H. Carr, partnership council chairman of the National AIDS Health Fraud Task Force Network. "It's even more frightening when they do so despite--and without so much as a mention of--emerging risks that those remedies pose to the very people to whom they are pitching their sale. St. John's wort and protease inhibitors: They don't mix."
Since the launch of Operation Cure.All in 1999, the FDA and FTC have won a number of battles against Internet health fraud. The FDA's efforts to curtail online marketing of unapproved drugs have resulted in at least 12 product seizures, 11 product recalls, 43 arrests, and 22 convictions. The FDA continues to investigate more than 80 incidences of Internet health fraud and unapproved drug products.
Since 1999, the FTC has brought 13 law enforcement actions against Internet marketers for unsubstantiated health claims. One case resulted in a $1 million settlement with the maker of a shark cartilage product promoted as a cure for cancer. Another settlement required consumer refunds for electronic devices and herbal remedies that were sold as cures for cancer, AIDS, Gulf War syndrome, and many other diseases. All were required to remove their bogus claims from the Web. In addition, the FTC estimates that more than 100 other Web sites have taken down their sites or removed their claims after the FTC contacted them.
"Consumers should avoid Web sites that promise quick and dramatic cures for serious diseases," says Howard Beales, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "And they should always consult a physician or other health-care professional before using any product or treatment."
How to Report Suspicious Claims
The FTC and FDA encourage people to report suspicious health claims. Since January 2000, the FDA has checked out more than 3,000 tips submitted by consumers about suspicious online prescription Web sites, according to Tom McGinnis, R.Ph., the FDA's director of pharmacy affairs.
To file a complaint regarding a possible fraudulent, deceptive, or unfair business practice, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at www.ftc.gov.
If you find a Web site you think is illegally selling human drugs, animal drugs, medical devices, biological products, foods, dietary supplements, or cosmetics over the Internet, use the complaint form at www.fda.gov/oc/buyonline/buyonlineform.htm.--L.B.
Be Suspicious
Promoters of fraudulent health-care products often use similar claims and practices to lure consumers into buying their goods. The FTC and FDA advise consumers to be suspicious of:
Claims that the product is "natural" or "non-toxic," suggesting it does not have side effects. "Natural" or "non-toxic" does not necessarily mean safe. Some "natural" supplements contain potent stimulants; others can result in negative interactions with medicines.
Testimonials from people who claim amazing results. Testimonials often are undocumented and are not a substitute for scientific proof.
Claims that a product is a "scientific breakthrough," "miraculous cure," "secret ingredient" or "ancient remedy."
Claims that the product is an effective cure for a wide range of ailments.
Claims that use impressive-sounding medical terms.
Claims that the product is available from only one source, and payment is required in advance.
Claims of a "money-back" guarantee.
Web sites that fail to list the company's name, physical address, phone number or other contact information.
For More Information…
For tips on buying health-care products on the Internet, check out:
FTC's Virtual Health Treatments [Note (8-6-2003): Now called Operation Cure.All]
FDA's Buying Medicines and Medical Products Online
For safety and other information on dietary supplements, see:www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/supplmnt.html
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