FTC steps up virus claims enforcement while CSPI wants more done about Amazon sales

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

©Getty Images - serggyn
©Getty Images - serggyn

Related tags coronavirus COVID-19 coronavirus claims Nutrition regulations disease claims

The prevalence of virus-treatment claims in the marketplace has made for both heightened enforcement from federal regulators and calls for even more action from an advocacy group regarding products sold on Amazon.

The US Federal Trade Commission announced yesterday it had issued another 35 warning letters to individuals, companies and other entities over allegedly unsubstantiated coronavirus-treatment claims. Seventeen of the letters were grouped under the heading ‘Vitamins, Supplements, Silver and Chinese Herbal Treatments.’

Warning letters addressed to clinics

This latest spate of warning letters​ was seen as particularly significant by industry observers in that FTC was examining claims made by treatment centers and clinics to their clients, some of which involved the use of supplements.  As FTC increasingly delves into claims being made within the practitioner channel, it’s a question that will unfold over the coming weeks as to how much of that conversation concerns the marketing of supplements and how much is communication between healthcare professionals and patients.

For example, in a warning letter sent to a business called the Hawaii Naturopathic Retreat, FTC says that the group made the following claims on its website:

  • “We’ve created several immune boosting packages to help you protect yourself against the coronavirus.
  • “To take your immune support one step further, you can take specific measures like vit D injections, vit C intravenous infusions, and by taking supplements like vit D, zinc and vit C at therapeutic doses for boosting your immune system.”

FTC noted that such claims must be substantiated with credible scientific evidence.

“It is unlawful under the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. § 41 et seq., to advertise that a product or service can prevent, treat, or cure human disease unless you possess competent and reliable scientific evidence, including, when appropriate, well-controlled human clinical studies, substantiating that the claims are true at the time they are made. For COVID-19, no such study is currently known to exist for the products or services identified above,” ​FTC southwest regional director Dana Brown said in her letter to the clinic.

CSPI says Amazon sales are a concern

Meanwhile, the Center for Science in the Public Interest said products sold on Amazon are of particular concern during the current pandemic climate.  CSPI said in a statement issued yesterday that during a market scan conducted on May 29 it had found 46 products for sale on Amazon making antiviral claims. 

In a letter sent to Amazon yesterday, CSPI called on Amazon to step up its cooperation with FTC and the US Food and Drug Administration to prevent consumers understandably concerned about their health from being defrauded by products making unsubstantiated viral treatment claims. 

Among the claims CSPI said they found were:

  • “Immune Support capsules help your immune system fight viruses and bacteria in sinus, throat and respiratory tract.”22
  •  “[P]romote normal immunity against bacterial and viral infections.”

The CSPI letter noted that Amazon has already taken some steps to address this issue but was urging the online retailing giant to do more.

“Because these supplements are not compliant with federal law, we respectfully urge Amazon to immediately stop sales of these antiviral supplements in accordance with Amazon’s policies, develop a system to identify and remove future misbranded supplements, and work with FDA and FTC in future efforts to remove fraudulent antiviral products,”​ the CSPI letter said.

In early March Amazon signed on to a public /private cooperative program managed by the Homeland Security Administration​ to address the issue of fraudulent COVID-19 related products and services.  At that time, Dharmesh Mehta, Amazon’s vice president of customer trust and partner support, had this to say:

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Amazon has proactively stopped more than 6.5 million products with inaccurate claims, removed over 1 million offers for suspected price gouging, suspended more than 10,000 selling accounts for suspected price gouging and referred the most egregious offenders to federal and state law enforcement across the country. Amazon welcomes HSI’s partnership in holding counterfeiters and bad actors accountable, and we look forward to building on our long-standing relationship to protect customers and ensure a trusted shopping experience.”

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