Monday, June 20, 2016

Keeping the FTC Busy

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the government organization tasked with keeping advertisers honest.  “Its principal mission is the promotion of consumer protection and the elimination and prevention of anticompetitive business practices.”  With all the fears and worries, real and manufactured, about physical and mental health that the pushers of pills and miracle cures take advantage of, the FTC keeps very busy.

I got a tip from a reader to check out the B12 stores that are springing up along the roadside in his state.  They offer Vitamin B12 injections and promise many health benefits.  One Internet site lists 22 areas where B12 helps the mind or body, prevents problems or boosts some function.  But as the reader points out 30 seconds of research on line shows that these injections are a waste of time.

This is quite right.  As this site explains, Vitamin B12 supplements are appropriate only when the patient has a deficiency.  It’s not the cure-all that it claims to be.  Since it is water-soluble, “[w]hen taken in excess, your body eliminates what it doesn’t need…So if you’re not deficient, you’re wasting your money.”  (In one end and out the other.)

The reader goes on to say he reported these false claims to the FTC. They called and thanked him but said they are so backlogged with other investigations that action would take months, maybe years.  What else is keeping them so busy? 

The next week, the answer came, in part, from the Consumer Health Digest, an non-governmental newsletter about deceptive medical claims.  “During the past two years, three marketers of questionable ‘brain training’ programs have settled FTC charges by agreeing to discontinue various claims.”

“The developers and marketers of LearningRx  ‘brain training’ agreed to stop claiming that their programs were clinically proven to permanently improve serious health conditions like ADHD, autism, dementia, Alzheimer's disease, strokes, and concussions and that the training substantially improved school grades, college admission test scores, career earnings, and job and athletic performance.”  

Then there was the case of the Lumosity games claiming to help users perform better at work and in school, and reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and other serious health conditions.  They settled charges that they deceived consumers with these unfounded claims and agreed to pay $2 million.

Finally about 18 months earlier, Focus Education “agreed to stop making unsubstantiated claims that their computer game, Jungle Rangers, permanently improves children's focus, memory, attention, behavior, and school performance, including for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”

In addition to the games and puzzles falsely claiming to make us smarter, more attentive and less forgetful, about 6 months ago “the FTC also settled charges against the marketers of Procera AVH, a dietary supplement claiming to have been clinically proven to improve memory, mood, and other cognitive functions.

These last four examples over the span of less than two years in only one category gives an idea of the size of the workload of the FTC as they try to police the deceptive claims of charlatans and hucksters, the snake oil salesmen preying on Americans looking for that magic cure, a cure for problems real or imagined, an easy way out.  Even some good companies may get carried away, trying to sell their products by promising cures when there is no evidence.   Perhaps they believe that what they are saying is true or that they have worded their ads cleverly enough to avoid legal problems.

In any case, these advertisers know a couple of things for sure.  Today there are so many reports of legitimate new drugs and advances in medicine that we are led to expect and be less skeptical of such claims.  They also know that any mention of Alzheimer’s, ADHD or autism will trigger an automatic, hopeful reaction.  So it’s up to us to be wary.  The FTC cannot protect us from every too-good-to-be-true ad that comes our way.  Discipline to do the work and not be sucked in by the promise of a miracle cure, along with a healthy skepticism that comes from critical thinking will push us to do a little research before accepting these claims at face value.  Such an approach can save significant time and money.

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