Culligan International Inc. has been ordered to pay $50,000 in fines for "alarmist" advertising about the public water supply, the first prosecution under a new law designed to protect California consumers from false claims.
Jerry Smilowitz, deputy attorney general with the state Department of Justice, said a Los Angeles Superior Court judge last week banned Culligan ads that depict a child drinking tap water, accompanied by a warning that his glass "may contain" dangerous amounts of organic waste, mercury, lead, asbestos and other contaminants.
The ad, one of several like it that were circulated by Culligan dealers in Southern California this year, said, "Pretty shocking, isn't it?" and promoted a treatment device that filters tap water in the home.
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Under the McCorquodale Act that became law on Jan. 1, water treatment companies cannot make health hazard claims about public water supplies unless such hazards actually exist in the community where the ads appear.
"The clear implication here was that the local water supply was poisoned or contaminated," Smilowitz said.
"Somewhere in the country, these claims might be true, but in Southern California, which is served by the Metropolitan Water District and which extensively tests and treats its water, this statement is not true."
Smilowitz said his office was particularly unhappy with Culligan's claim that "the media is frequently reporting the cause for concern about drinking water."
He said his office has investigated 19 other "alarmist" claims made this year by lesser-known water treatment companies who are sprouting up because of a boom in the water treatment industry.
"We are particularly concerned about Culligan because they have such a good reputation, and a lot of fly-by-night companies will look at them and say, 'Hey, if they can do it, why can't we?' " Smilowitz said.
I. Donald Rosuck, president of Culligan, said in a telephone interview from his Northbrook, Ill., headquarters that Culligan has complied with the court order, but that the ads were not misleading.
"Our ads are fair, but we have decided not to take issue with the McCorquodale Act," Rosuck said. The act's name refers to its chief sponsor, state Sen. Dan McCorquodale (D-San Jose).
"We are an internationally reputed company in the water treatment industry and we comply with the code of ethics of the Water Quality Assn.," Rosuck said. "We do not have to use alarmist tactics."
Rosuck said California is one of Culligan's biggest sales areas. Through franchises, the company markets home water-softening and filtration systems that cost from $300 to several thousand dollars.