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Zicam inventor arrested, accused of illegal marketing of flu drug

Charles Hensley is accused of selling Vira 38 as a 'prevention and treatment' of influenza and bird flu without FDA approval, an assistant U.S. attorney says.

June 02, 2011|By Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times

A Redondo Beach man who invented the cold treatment gel Zicam was arrested on federal charges of illegally marketing another drug during a 2005 worldwide bird flu scare.

Charles B. Hensley was arrested on charges that he sold the drug Vira 38 as a "prevention and treatment" of influenza and bird flu without Food and Drug Administration approval, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Pio Kim.

Hensley was taken into custody at his home on Wednesday and held overnight at the Metropolitan Detention Center. He was scheduled to make his first court appearance Thursday.

A federal grand jury in Los Angeles indicted Hensley last month on 12 counts related to sales of Vira 38 to customers in Kansas and California, Kim said.

The indictment alleges that Hensley shipped 26 bottles of the drug from Hong Kong to customers in the United States. Vira 38 was marketed on the website for Hensley's company, PRB Pharmaceuticals, which was based in Cypress, Kim said.

Hensley had initially attempted to sell the drug in Hong Kong, Kim said. When authorities there would not approve it, Hensley started marketing it on the Internet, Kim said.

Hensley's attorney, Richard Jaffe of Houston, said the product was a natural supplement made from "four teas you can find in any health-food store." He said Hensley would plead not guilty and probably would take the case to trial.

"As bad of shape as the federal government is in, this is a case you have to prosecute?" Jaffe said. "No one was harmed. Is this really worthy of a federal prosecution?"

Hensley committed a crime by labeling the drug as a cure for flu without FDA approval, Kim said. If the label did not include that statement, it could have been legally sold as a homeopathic supplement.

"His problem was claiming that this treats disease. You can't just decide to take it upon yourself to say this treats a serious disease, particularly something like bird flu," Kim said.

The charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison, but Hensley probably would receive substantially less time if convicted, Kim said.

In the 1990s, Hensley obtained patents for a zinc-based gel that was marketed as a cold remedy under the brand name Zicam. The product was originally made to be applied inside the nose with a swab.

In 2009, the FDA ordered Zicam's manufacturer, Matrixx Initiatives of Scottsdale, Ariz., to stop selling the product because it damages users' sense of smell. Matrixx still sells lozenges, syrups and sprays under the Zicam name.

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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