FTC moves to quell online medical quacks

Agency promises to step up enforcement, education

June 25, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- With Americans increasingly turning to the Internet for medical information, federal officials announced stepped-up efforts yesterday to counter fraudulent online claims that promise to cure ailments from arthritis to AIDS.

More than 20 million Americans look to the Internet for health information -- 70 percent of them before visiting a doctor's office, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Officials said they expect the online medical universe to expand even further in coming years, replete with both helpful and hazardous advice that is often difficult for consumers to distinguish.

"We're going to continue to promote the value of the Internet's ability to provide truthful information," said Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "But when information on Web sites is deceptive and untruthful, consumers are at risk."

Among the misleading claims the agency reported it has encountered online are that a fatty acid could cure arthritis by permanently modifying the immune system; that shark cartilage could treat cancer and AIDS; and that "magnetic therapy devices" could effectively battle cancer, liver disease and other serious ailments.

Making public proposed settlement agreements with four companies that boasted those claims, the FTC said it is aiming to "put the quacks out of business" with tougher enforcement and a new consumer education campaign.

Bernstein acknowledged that the Internet is so vast that not every faulty claim can be monitored. As a result, she said, the key for consumers will be to find ways to evaluate the barrage of online information to find reliable sites.

The FTC recommended that consumers interested in medical information start at U.S. government Web sites -- such as www.healthfinder.gov -- that provide links to reputable sources.

FTC surveys of the Internet in 1997 and 1998 produced 400 sites each year that contained questionable medical claims. Officials sent e-mails to those sites, informing them that their claims could violate federal law. The agency said about one in four of the 1998 pool either removed their claims or deleted the site entirely.

Pub Date: 6/25/99

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