Wednesday, June 10, 2009

One flu over the cuckoo’s nest? Phony Swine Flu products are dangerous

By James J. Gormley

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”
---“The Crisis” by Thomas Paine, December 23, 1776

As of May 17, 2009, 39 countries had officially reported 8,480 cases of “swine flu” (influenza A (H1N1) infection. Most confirmed cases were identified in Mexico (2,895 cases, 66 deaths) and the U.S. (4,714 cases, 4 deaths). The following states were hardest hit: Illinois (638 cases), Wisconsin (613), Texas (506), California (504), Arizona (435), Washington (246) and New York (242).

Although times of crisis, such as national health emergencies and global pandemics, bring out the best in most Americans, there have unfortunately always been some marketeers and hucksters who take advantage of the panic resulting from these tragic, and trying, times.

The current swine flu epidemic is no exception. On April 27th, 2009, within days of the first confirmed flu cases in the U.S., I received a press release announcing a nano-silver swine flu kit that was already being packed for shipment in “pre-paid overnight FEDEX boxes.”

I also received a “Swine Flu Alert” about a liquid silver supplement that allegedly “destroys MRSA, SARS, malaria, anthrax […] hepatitis C, HIV […] and bird flu.”

A day later, I stumbled upon an article posted on a Bulgarian news agency site with the following lead: “Bulgaria expects a huge increase in orders for two anti-flu dietary supplements in light of the current swine flu epidemic.” One of these products had already been the subject of a new dietary ingredient (NDI) rejection by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in early 2000.

On April 28th, I alerted Gary Coody to these scams; Gary is the national health fraud coordinator in the FDA’s Office of Enforcement. I also reached out to officials from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Meanwhile, others in the natural products industry, including leading organizations, were quick to respond to these opportunistic peddlers. Industry responders included the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) and the Natural Products Association (NPA) --- which issued a joint press release, on May 1st, that included the following call-to-action:

“Marketers and retailers of dietary supplements are urged to refuse to stock or sell any supplements that are presented as treating or curing swine flu.”

According to Michael Chappell, FDA’s acting associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, “In conjunction with the [FTC], the FDA has developed an aggressive strategy to identify, investigate and take regulatory or criminal action against individuals or businesses that wrongfully promote purported 2009 H1N1 influenza products in an attempt to take advantage of the current flu public health emergency.”

“Scam artists follow the headlines, trying to make a fast buck with products that play off the news --- and prey on concerned people,” said Eileen Harrington, acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We’re online and telling e-marketers their sites must comply with the law.”

The FTC has developed a new consumer alert, “Rx for Products That Claim to Prevent H1N1? A Healthy Dose of Skepticism” ( It warns the public to be skeptical of claims that products like pills, air filtration devices and cleaning agents can supposedly kill or eliminate the virus.

This is, of course, not the first time that Internet peddlers have tried to take advantage of consumers during scares and epidemics.

By March 2002, the FTC had sent warning letters to 121 web sites selling products to “protect against, detect or treat illnesses caused by biological or chemical agents, including anthrax.” The products, most of them bogus or ineffective, included herbal remedies, air filters, gas masks and “do-it-yourself kits to test mail for anthrax.”

In 2005, the FDA issued warning letters to nine companies marketing phony avian flu products. The use of these fake products “increases the risk of catching and spreading the flu rather than lessening it because people assume they are protected and safe and they aren’t,” said the acting FDA commissioner on December 13th, 2005.

Gormley Take-Away: We should steer clear of any dietary supplements which claim to prevent, treat or cure swine flu --- and, for that matter, any virus or outbreak of any kind. Legitimate supplements, including herbals, are great for promoting health and helping us cope with the common, everyday nasties that come our way. But let’s leave the gas masks in the fallout shelters, okay?

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