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Consumer Watch

Bogus cancer cures are targeted

The FTC takes action against 11 companies with unsubstantiated claims on websites.

September 21, 2008|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

It's hard to think of anything more heinous than bogus cancer cures. Yet there is no lack of Internet sites that promise to cure, for a price, any cancer with an elixir, concoction of herbs or systematized program of thinking good thoughts.

Last week the Federal Trade Commission disclosed actions it had taken against several companies that promoted online cancer cures.

The actions were the result of a project started last year to identify websites making unsubstantiated cure claims.

"We found all of these claims to be nothing short of breathtaking, and not in a good way," said Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

She announced law enforcement actions against 11 companies. Six already had reached settlements with the agency; the rest will be litigated.

Eleven sites is a pittance considering the number of online cancer cure claims that can be readily found.

Putting the words "cancer," "cure" and "miracle" in a Google search resulted not only in hundreds of thousands of hits (some of which were about legitimate scientific procedures), but also a list of sponsored links paid for by companies that wanted their supposed cures on the first page of results.

There was the "Miracle Water for Cancer" website, advertising a treated water that allegedly could curb the disease, plus also aid in weight loss and slow down the aging process.

There was also a site offering a miracle cure "the drug companies hope you never find out" that supposedly is also a vitamin that "will virtually eliminate the chance of getting cancer."

Parnes acknowledged that there was no lack of sites that "sell snake oil to consumers," as she put it.

The project originally identified 112 websites making non-medical cancer-cure claims. They each were sent warning letters "telling them they must have adequate substantiation for any health claims they make about their products," Parnes said.

Within two months, about 30% of these sites had closed down or removed unsubstantiated claims, she said.

The actions announced last week were the first taken against the rest.

Among those that reached a settlement:

* Ni-Gen Nutrition of Troy, Mich., which allegedly marketed an electrolyte liquid and apricot seeds as cures.

* Westberry Enterprises of Pineville, La., which the agency said sold teas that contained algae and other ingredients.

* Jim Clark's All Natural Cancer Therapy of Louisville, Ky., which allegedly sold digestive enzymes and coral calcium as treatments.

In each case, the company settling with the agency promised to no longer make unsubstantiated claims but also didn't admit wrongdoing.

The companies that have been sued by the agency include:

* Omega Supply of San Diego, which allegedly sold hydrazine sulfate, a substance classified by the government as a potential cancer-causing agent.

* Herbs for Cancer, which allegedly sold 16 types of teas to fight specific cancers, plus a 17th type for "cancers not on our list."

In a statement, the Federal Drug Administration said it also might take action against some sites identified in the Federal Trade Commission investigation.

Parnes said that along with the FTC's actions, the agency was launching a website -- www.ftc.gov/curious -- to provide educational materials about spotting and reporting bogus cancer claims.

And she said investigations and legal actions would continue.

"This is not a kind of once-in-a-blue moon effort," Parnes said.

"We have been on this beat for quite a long time, and we intend to stay there."

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david.colker@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Cancer scams

The Federal Trade Commission has a new series of Web pages on identifying and reporting sites that sell unsubstantiated cancer cures. It's at www.ftc.gov/curious. Here are signs that a supposed cure could be a scam:

* If it claims to work on every type of cancer. All cancers are different.

* If it's a "natural" cure. Remedies such as essiac tea and black salve, which are billed as closer to nature than mainstream medications, are unproven and can be harmful.

* If a cure site uses technical jargon in place of plain-language facts.

* If the cure site offers a money-back guarantee. This hardly substantiates a cure claim.

Source: Federal Trade Commission

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