By: Donald D. Ashley, J.D., and Douglas Stearn, J.D.
A cancer diagnosis often provokes a sense of desperation. Unfortunately, rogue operations exploiting those fears peddle untested and potentially dangerous products, particularly on the internet. FDA responds in two ways: with compliance and enforcement actions against unscrupulous companies and with consumer education to decrease demand.
Every one of FDA’s product centers and the FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA) has staff devoted to rooting out health fraud scams. These teams regularly investigate consumer complaints and monitor the stores and online marketplaces where such products are advertised. Recently the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research teamed up with ORA to search the Internet and social media for bogus products that falsely claim to diagnose, treat or cure cancer, a violation of federal law.
It was a challenging assignment.
Those marketing fraudulent products – primarily or exclusively on the internet – attempt to subvert compliance and enforcement efforts by changing the names of their products, their companies, and/or their websites.
Nevertheless, today we are announcing that 14 companies peddling bogus cancer cures have received warning letters from FDA. Warning letters are a primary compliance tool that FDA uses to address violations of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
These companies used slick ads, videos, and other sophisticated marketing techniques, including testimonials about miraculous outcomes. Often a single product was promoted as a treatment or cure for multiple diseases in humans and animals. Hoping to skirt the law on a technicality, some sellers made false claims and then in small print provided a disclaimer that their products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
Making such obvious claims and then saying later that you are not doing so might seem clever, but the technique does not comply with federal laws intended to protect public health.
Each of these companies has 15 working days to respond with a plan to come into compliance with the law.
If necessary, FDA also has authority to take further action, including criminal prosecutions, product seizures, and injunctions. Companies that fail to come into compliance after receiving a warning letter can for example, face criminal prosecution and court-ordered decrees that require them to recall products and get written permission from FDA before resuming operations. The violations identified in the warning letters, if not corrected, are punishable by up to one year in federal prison, five years’ probation and a fine of either $100,000 or twice the gain from the offense.
FDA works diligently to monitor and take action against companies marketing unsafe products online and has issued more than 90 warning letters over the past decade to companies marketing fraudulent cancer products.
Consumer education is critical in combating the dangers posed by these types of products. Thus, our recent cancer fraud initiative includes a push to raise consumer awareness and thereby decrease demand. Efforts include contacting media outlets that reach millions of consumers, posting a Consumer Update article at FDA.gov, and encouraging consumer groups, trade associations, and others to help us spread this important “buyer beware” information.
The message to consumers is this: These products are untested. Some contain ingredients that may be a direct risk to your health. The ingredients may interact in a dangerous way with professionally-prescribed treatments. They are not a substitute for appropriate treatments. Using these products can waste your money, and, more importantly, endanger your health.
Donald D. Ashley is director of the Office of Compliance in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research
Douglas Stearn is director of the Office of Enforcement and Import Operations within FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs