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Previously published in Response magazine

Marketers who use the World Wide Web to merchandise their products know that it's a cost-effective way to communicate with consumers. Unfortunately, the Federal Trade Commission and other government regulators have figured out that surfing the Web is a cost-effective way for them to check up on advertisers. There's no more convenient way for them to find targets to investigate.

Recently, a coalition of some 80 government agencies and private organizations from 25 countries--including the Federal Trade Commission and 17 state attorneys general--surfed about 1,200 Internet sites in search of false advertising claims relating to health.

Salad days are gone

The surfers found many World Wide Web sites claiming that the herbal remedies, electrical devices, or other products they offered for sale could treat, cure, or prevent arthritis, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS or multiple sclerosis.

The FTC staffers and others who participated in this first "International Health Claim Surf Day" sent e-mail messages to those advertisers warning them that they are expected to have reliable scientific evidence to back up their health claims. Marketers that don't clean up their acts soon may find themselves the targets of law enforcement investigations, which can result in restrictive cease-and-desist orders or monetary penalties.One FTC staffer lamented the prevalence of what she called "electronic snake oil" on the Web. Another government official acknowledged that the Internet was a powerful medium that can provide easy access to information about diseases and their treatments, but noted that it also allows promoters of fraudulent health products easy access to consumers from all over the world.

The sheer number of Web sites selling health-related products is huge, and there simply aren't enough government attorneys to challenge all of them. But it's clear that health-related fraud on the Internet is a high priority for the FTC and the states. Anyone who makes false or unsubstantiated claims that a dietary supplement, drug, or device treats arthritis or reduces the risk of cancer or heart disease does so at his or her peril.

Snake oil proliferation

The number of Web sites devoted to vitamins, herbal products, and other dietary supplements has exploded. Ask AltaVista to search the Web for sites about "vitamins," and you get more than half a million hits; enter "herbal," and you'll get another half a million Web pages. Nutritional supplements are everywhere on the Web.

New scientific research and changes in government regulation have left many supplement marketers uncertain about what they can and can't say in their advertising.

As noted above, the government is ready to pounce on marketers who step over the line, but many people are unsure of just where that line is.

Few easy answers

The FTC recently published a "plain English" guide (A Guide for the Dietary Supplement Industry) to the FTC advertising policies that apply to supplement advertising, which you can find on the FTC's Web site (http://www.ftc.gov). That guide identifies the questions that you need to answer before you advertise those products. But it gives very few black-and-white answers.

One thing the guide does make clear is that the FTC may take action against anyone who participates directly or indirectly in the creation or dissemination of deceptive or unsubstantiated advertising. This means that not only the supplement manufacturers who are the source of such claims, but also the ad agencies, retailers, catalog companies and other third parties who pass the claims on may be held responsible. So if you're selling a vitamin or herbal product, don't assume that you can simply rely on the manufacturer: The government expects you to do some digging before you repeat what a manufacturer says about its product.