SARS: Bogus SARS Prevention Products: Buyer Beware (cont.)

The Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are warning Web site operators, manufacturers and distributors 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. FDA has sent 8 warning letters to manufacturers and distributors who are making misleading claims. 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 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."

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.