Consumer Health Digest #10-34

Your Weekly Update of News and Reviews
August 26, 2010

Consumer Health Digest is a free weekly e-mail newsletter edited by Stephen Barrett, M.D., with help from William M. London, Ed.D., M.P.H. It summarizes scientific reports; legislative developments; enforcement actions; news reports; Web site evaluations; recommended and nonrecommended books; and other information relevant to consumer protection and consumer decision-making.

Court orders halt to supplement scam. At the FTC's request, a U.S. district court has ordered Arizona-based Central Coast Nutraceuticals, Inc. (CCN) and its owners to temporarily halt a scheme that allegedly scammed consumers out of at least $30 million in 2009 alone through deceptive advertising and unfair billing practices. Since 2007, victimized consumers have flooded law enforcement agencies and the Better Business Bureau with more than 2,800 complaints about the company. The FTC has charged CCN, Graham D. Gibson, Michael A. McKenzy, and four related companies with deceptively advertising AcaiPure (an acai berry supplement) as a weight-loss product and Colopure (a "colon cleansing" product) as an aid for preventing cancer. The defendants were also charged with deceiving prospective buyers by offering "free" or "risk-free" trial offers that opened the door to unauthorized credit card charges. The court order imposes an asset freeze, and appoints a temporary receiver over the defendants while the FTC moves forward with its case to stop the company's improper conduct. [Court orders Internet marketers of acai berry weight-loss pills and "colon cleansers" to stop deceptive advertising and unfair billing practices. FTC news release, August 16, 2010] The FTC Web site features one of CCN's deceptive television ads.

At a press conference announcing the FTC action, a VISA official stated that his company took aggressive action after the number of complaints from dissatisfied customers mounted. Under VISA's regulatory program, when requests for chargebacks (forced refunds) reach 1% of sales, sellers are pressured to modify their sales practices, but the CCN case was complicated because the company changed names several times. In a subsequent interview, another VISA representative told Dr. Stephen Barrett that more than half the companies that generate excessive chargebacks sell "nutraceuticals" (dietary supplements), but VISA's regulatory activity is focused on sales practices rather than product claims.

Whooping cough is epidemic in California. California has reported that the number of reported deaths and illnesses this year due to whooping cough (pertussis) is the highest in 52 years and that the incidence rate has been increasing since the early 1980s, even though effective prevention is available. As of August 24, 2010, 3,311 confirmed, probable, and suspect cases of pertussis have been reported. This number includes eight deaths and at least 169 hospitalizations. Two factors have contributed to the epidemic. One is that many parents who have encountered misleading information are afraid that vaccination is dangerous. The other is that insurance reimbursement rates are so low that some doctors are not encouraging their adult patients to have the recommended booster shots. Quackwatch has additional details.

"Vaccination causes autism" litigants lose another round. The U.S. Court of Appeals has affirmed the Special Master's decision that the family of Michelle Cedillo had presented no credible evidence that vaccination had caused her to develop autism. The decision is part of the Autism Omnibus Proceeding in which more than 5,000 families who claim that vaccines caused their children to become autistic are seeking compensation under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). In February 2009, Special Masters ruled in this case and two others that were selected to test how similar cases should be handled. The decisions completely debunked the alleged vaccine/autism connections and implied that the doctors who promote them are acting unethically. Autism Watch has posted key findings and links to the hearing transcripts and decisions.

Power Balance products debunked. Device Watch has examined the hype used to promote Power Balance products, which are claimed to improve balance, flexibility, strength and overall wellness. The marketers say that their wrist bands and other products contain holograms that have been "embedded with naturally occurring frequencies found in nature that have been known to react positively with the body's energy field." The marketers use demonstrations in which they purport to test whether people get stronger when wearing a product. However, the techniques used are similar to applied kinesiology muscle-testing, which relies on suggestibility. Last year, an Australian television program conducted double-blind tests that demonstrated that the tester could not determine which of six people carried a card containing the hologram. Despite the absurdity of the products, the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund is "partnering" with Power Balance to help raise funds for ovarian cancer research. [Hall H. Power Balance products: A skeptical look. Device Watch, Aug 24, 2010]

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This page was revised on August 28, 2010.