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FDA cracks down on Internet sales of swine flu 'cures'

About 80 Internet purveyors have been warned to stop peddling unproven or illegal treatments for H1N1 such as ultraviolet lights or dietary supplements.

October 18, 2009|Diane C. Lade

An ultraviolet light that its sellers promise will "destroy swine flu virus." A dietary supplement claiming to be "more effective than the swine flu shot." Pills, hand sanitizers and air filters galore.

Through daily Internet searches, the Food and Drug Administration found hundreds of suspect items advertised as swine flu deterrents and cures, and over the last six months warned 80 Internet purveyors to stop peddling unproved or illegal treatments.

The FDA has issued an advisory, telling consumers to use "extreme care" when purchasing online products claiming to diagnose, treat or prevent the H1N1 virus. The agency and the Federal Trade Commission continue to closely watch these operations, anticipating that more unauthorized items will pop up for sale through the flu season.

"It's very important that consumers know these products can be deceptive and risky," said Alyson Saben, deputy director of the FDA's Office of Enforcement. "They offer a false sense of protection and could delay someone from seeking treatment."

Richard Cleland, the FTC's assistant director of the advertising practices division, said the SARS and anthrax scares generated similar products.

"Some marketers follow the news carefully . . . and take advantage of people who are fearful," he said.

The majority of the warning letters -- which tell companies to contact the FDA within 48 hours about their corrective plans or face enforcement action -- involved dietary supplements, Saben said.

An array of products were cited: air and water filters, inhalers, kits including biohazard coveralls and plastic gloves.

Some online pharmaceutical retailers claimed to have Tamiflu, one of two antiviral drugs approved by the FDA for treating swine flu. The FDA recently purchased and analyzed several of the products. One, which came in an envelope postmarked from India, consisted of two white tablets found to contain talc and acetaminophen but no oseltamivir, the active ingredient in Tamiflu.

Weil Lifestyle, the online store featuring natural health guru Dr. Andrew Weil, was sent a warning Thursday regarding its vitamin packs and immune support formula.

In a written statement, Weil said that the website information had been "primarily educational" and that his editorial content was always reviewed for federal law compliance. But he said that the language that concerned the FDA had been removed and that he supported the agency's efforts.

FDA investigators began their daily Internet searches shortly after federal health officials declared the H1N1 virus a public health emergency in April.

Penalties for not correcting violations range from seizure of the products to criminal prosecution.

About 82% of the cited retailers have complied, Saben said, but enforcement actions are being considered against several who ignored the warnings.

Warning letters are posted on the FDA website.

Red flags for online shoppers include products that claim to treat multiple diseases or that claim to be scientific breakthroughs, and sites with personal or medical testimonials.

Some retailers were puzzled why regulators would go after their swine flu remedies but leave their similarly marketed products for other illnesses alone.

"I think it was an overreaction to the news media and the sensationalism," said Marilyn Vail, a certified aromatherapist who co-owns Washington-based Inhalation Inc. with her physicist husband.

She removed her "No Colds, No Flus" and "Flu Away" inhalers from her product listings and took down her "Swine Flu Research" page, as the FDA requested. But she continues to offer eucalyptus and natural oil inhalers for treating headaches, sinus problems and asthma.

Simon Whittle, general manager of American Ultraviolet Co., said his company has been selling commercial and residential UV light systems for 50 years, claiming they eliminate germs, bacteria and mold. But Whittle said the products were never scientifically tested regarding the H1N1 virus, and he removed the swine flu references after receiving his FDA warning in June.

Owners of some health food stores say they are seeing many products carrying swine flu treatment claims. The owners say they won't stock them.

"Most people who run these kind of stores know what products are used to build the immune system, and they trust us to give them something they or their children can take," said Karla Fedoruk, owner of Cooper City Health Foods in Florida.

"We know these products aren't allowed to say they can treat swine flu."

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dlade@sunsentinel.com

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