Nutritional supplement marketers to drop misleading disease claims

by jeeg 8. January 2014 21:26

Improved safeguards of sensitive medical information are also being required

Two companies that market genetically customized nutritional supplements have agreed to settle charges of deceptive advertising that claimed the products treat diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, insomnia, and other ailments.

The proposed settlements with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also resolve charges that the companies engaged in lax information security practices.

GeneLink, Inc. and its former subsidiary, foruTM International Corp. used a network of individual affiliates to market nutritional supplements and a skincare product that were purportedly customized to each consumer’s unique genetic profile. The profile was said to have been based on an assessment of the DNA obtained from a cheek swab provided by the consumer. The supplements and skin repair serum each cost more than $100 per month.

Unsupported health claims

The FTC's complaint alleges that GeneLink and foru violated the FTC Act by making false or unsupported health claims about their genetically customized products. Company-approved marketing materials included claims that the customized nutritional supplements could compensate for an individual’s genetic disadvantages, and that the customized skin repair serum’s effectiveness was scientifically proven. The companies also claimed through testimonials that the customized nutritional supplements could treat serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and insomnia.

According to the FTC, the companies also deceptively and unfairly claimed that they had taken reasonable and appropriate security measures to safeguard and maintain personal information collected from nearly 30,000 consumers. But the complaint maintains the companies failed to protect the security of personal information -- including genetic information, Social Security numbers, bank account information, and credit card numbers; did not require service providers to have appropriate safeguards for consumers’ personal information; and failed to use readily available security measures to limit wireless access to their network.

“This case is about the consequences of making false claims,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “It doesn’t matter whether the claims deal with the benefits of direct-to-consumer genetic testing or the privacy of personal information. It’s against the law to deceive people about your product and to make promises you don’t keep.”

Setting stricter standards

The proposed settlements prohibit the marketers from claiming that any drug, food, or cosmetic will treat, prevent, mitigate, or reduce the risk of any disease including diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, or insomnia -- by modulating the effect of genes, or based on a consumer’s customized genetic assessment -- unless the claim is true and supported by at least two adequate and well-controlled studies.

The orders also require that claims that a product effectively treats or prevents a disease in persons with a particular genetic variation must be backed up with randomized clinical trials conducted on subjects who have that genetic variation.

In addition, the companies may not make any other claims about the health benefits, performance, or efficacy of any drug, food, or cosmetic by modulating the effect of genes, or the consumer’s customized genetic assessment --unless the claim is true and based on competent and reliable scientific evidence.

The proposed orders also prohibit the marketers from misrepresenting scientific research regarding such drug, food, or cosmetic, or any genetic test or assessment. The orders also provide a safe harbor for advertising claims that have been approved by the FDA.

Under the proposed orders, GeneLink and foru also are prohibited from providing their affiliates, or any person or entity, with the means to make the prohibited health claims. The proposed settlements also require the companies to monitor claims their affiliates make on their behalf.

Finally, the proposed orders require the companies to establish and maintain comprehensive information security programs and submit to security audits by independent auditors every other year for 20 years. The proposed settlements also bar GeneLink and foru from misrepresenting their privacy and security practices.   

James Limbach, Consumer Affairs


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