The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is taking action against CVS pharmacies to shield consumers from false claims that Airshield supplements are a line of defense to prevent colds, fight germs and boost immune systems. CVS will cease making related misleading claims and pay nearly $2.8 million to settle FTC charges. The announcement indicates that it may be a tricky time for product manufacturers and retailers when touting dietary-supplement cold and flu products.
For many months now, the FTC has closely scrutinized products that make claims surrounding H1N1, flu and colds. Early on, the agency sought companies that marketed products as a cure or mitigation of H1N1, to which the natural-products industry agreed. As the H1N1 flu season approaches, FTC scrutiny is spreading to generic cold and flu claims.
Marketers of dietary supplements must be very careful when choosing verbs and adjectives to describe their products. The language used to talk about the benefits of a supplement can make or break its success. There is a very fine line between "boost the immune system," and saying, "help support the immune system." And of course, it's just plain dangerous to even mention the word 'flu' in any marketing for supplements," says Pam Magnuson, author, What Can You Say When You Can't Say Anything? How to Avoid FDA Red Flag Claims and Sell Your Natural Products Legally.
At the end of July, Sambucol, makers of Immune System Elderberry Formula, was cited for making the claim: "supports your natural defenses against the Flu, and Colds, and is especially popular during the winter season" (See the FDA coming down on immunity claims, here). The company has long marketed its products in a similar fashion, but times are different since the H1N1 situation, with a vast number of companies that have literally jumped out of the virtual woodwork with flulike products. As of August 2009, the FTC found as many as 126 companies with products illegally marketed as targeting the H1N1 "swine flu" virus.
The agency says its action against CVS and Airshield is to prevent consumers from being misled during a particularly vulnerable time. "Students returning to college campuses and parents sending their kids off to school want to take precautions to fight the germs that can cause coughs, colds, and the flu," said David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "As the CDC has advised, there are good practices to follow. But consumers should not be misled by false claims about the germ-fighting properties of dietary supplements. With orders against Airborne, Rite Aid and now CVS, manufacturers and retailers are on notice that they have to tell the truth about what dietary supplements can and cannot do."