Natural Foods Merchandiser

Rite Aid to pay $500,000 in refunds; FTC alerts consumers to deceptive advertising in cold/flu products

One year after Airborne Health settled with the Federal Trade Commission over claims of deceptive advertising, national pharmacy chain Rite Aid based in Camp Hill, Penn., has agreed to do the same.

Rite Aid will pay $500,000 in consumer refunds to settle charges that its Germ Defense tablets falsely advertised its ability to prevent and treat colds and the flu.

Sales of Germ Defense —on shelves from September 2005 to December 2008–exceeded $4.5 million. The Germ Defense formula replicated the formula used in Airborne and included vitamins A, C, and E as well as minerals, electrolytes, amino acids and a proprietary blend of herbal extracts including echinacea.

In addition to seeking damages from Rite Aid, the FTC has charged Rite Aid’s supplier, Improvita Health Products of Cleveland, Ohio with false and deceptive advertising. Improvita allegedly provided advertising, packaging and promotional materials that “contained unsubstantiated claims.” Improvita also sold Germ Defense directly to consumers online.

These cases are the beginning of many for the FTC as it launches a thorough investigation of health claims made by natural cold and flu remedies.

“These products lack the reliable scientific evidence required by law to back up the claims they make,” an FTC consumer alert said. “Medical experts agree that there is no cure for the common cold. Indeed, the FTC is investigating – and has already sued – several marketers of products that claimed to prevent colds, fight germs, reduce the severity or duration of a cold, or protect against sickness in crowded places.”

Instead of taking pills or drugs to prevent sickness, the FTC is recommending good hygiene, including consistent hand washing and eating a balanced diet.

Despite these recommendations, consumers still look to herbal and natural remedies to rid them of their symptoms. According to Mintel, a Chicago-based market-research firm, one fifth of cough/cold/sore throat/ flu sufferers use echinacea, vitamin C, zinc and other alternative remedies instead of traditional medicine to treat and prevent the common cold.

For more information about the kinds of advertising claims that can be made for dietary supplements, see the FTC’s “Dietary Supplements: An Advertising Guide for Industry;” for labeling claims, see the FDA’s “Claims That Can Be Made for Conventional Foods and Dietary Supplements.”

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