History has shown that every disease outbreak or bioterrorist threat represents an opportunity for snake-oil salesmen and unscrupulous marketers to make a quick buck. According to the British Medical Journal, the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome is no exception and has spawned nearly half a million new SARS-related Web sites. To counter this flood, five of the natural product industry's trade associations have responded with a strongly worded statement for consumers, marketers and retailers.
The advisory, issued by the American Herbal Products Association, Consumer Healthcare Products Association, Council for Responsible Nutrition, National Nutritional Foods Association and Utah Natural Products Alliance, states that dietary supplements have not been shown to prevent or treat SARS. It also points out that federal law does not allow claims that dietary supplements treat or prevent any diseases, including SARS.
The group recommends that marketers and retailers refuse to stock, sell or promote products that are presented as preventing or curing SARS, and that those who believe they have actually contracted SARS should contact a health care professional.
CRN spokeswoman Judy Blatman believes the SARS scare has created an opening for the naturals industry to be proactive. "This is an opportunity to get together and stand up as one for the benefit of the industry and the consumer," she said. "We, as the core of the industry, needed to take the first step and draw a line in the sand and say 'This is not acceptable.'"
But in the business of health, that line can be fuzzy. "There's a fine line between legitimate opportunism and dangerous opportunism," Blatman said. "And you really don't want to step over that line."
The Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration followed the associations' lead by cracking down on Internet companies promoting SARS-protection products. In mid-May, the two agencies issued warnings to Web site operators and e-mail solicitors stating that it is illegal to make claims that cannot be supported by science, so the products must be removed from the sites.
Bryce Edmonds is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.