Looking Out for Bogus Cancer Cures

Mary Spohn, a licensed acupuncturist in Arizona, thinks people should be free to choose alternatives to chemotherapy, radiation and surgery while fighting cancer -- including natural remedies like the Chinese herbal teas that she started selling online in 2004.

"I don't see how the government can take your right or my right away to chose to take a natural product if we want to use it for any means possible," Spohn told ABCNews.com Thursday.

Still, Spohn's company is one of five facing a lawsuit today from the Federal Trade Commission.

On Thursday, the Federal Trade Commission announced it has filed complaints against 11 companies that it says are hawking bogus cancer cures online.

Those selling the purported cures -- some made from laetrile, a natural substance found in apricots, peaches and almonds, as well as herbs, shark cartilage or mushroom extracts -- are being accused of relying on deceptive advertising in what the FTC described as a "breathtaking" violation of the law.

In turn, the FTC is telling vulnerable people desperate to find cures for cancer to steer clear of Web sites selling remedies that promise astounding results.

Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, said Thursday that while she credits the Internet with giving patients more information about their health care, "unfortunately, it also has become a vehicle for some marketers to engage in blatant health fraud."

"Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., so I don't think it's a stretch to say that every one of us has been affected by the disease -- as a survivor, a relative, a friend and a neighbor," Parnes said.

Six of the 11 companies accused of selling fake cancer cures online have settled; the other five are being sued by the FTC.

Those being sued by the FTC include Alexander Heckman d/b/a Omega Supply; Native Essence Herb Company; Daniel Chapter One; Gemtronics Inc.; and Mary T. Spohn a/b/a Herbs for Cancer.

FDA Worries About Health Effects of Products

While the FTC's goal is to crack down on deceptive advertising, the Food and Drug Administration is worried that some of the products being sold online could actually harm consumers' health. The FDA is also worried the products could be harmful if they turn consumers away from more conventional treatments.

Spohn said she never claimed her teas cured anyone of cancer and that they don't harm anyone's health.

"The only thing it does is help the body to build up its immune system," said Spohn, whose Web site has since shut down. "A lot of these herbs have anti-cancer properties, and that's why I made the tea."

Early this summer, the FDA sent warning letters to 25 companies, telling them to stop selling fake cancer cures online. Three of five companies sued by the FTC, including Spohn's, were on the FDA's list at that time.

In a May 27, 2008, the FDA acknowledged that Spohn had "attempted to disclaim" some of the statements about products sold by the company, Herbs for Cancer.

The FDA noted that the site contained the message: "Disclaimer: The FTC and FDA require us to place this disclaimer here, please read. Herbs for cancer are not intended to cure, treat, or diagnose your illness."

In the letter, the FDA told Spohn, "However, untrue or misleading information in one part of your site will not be mitigated by inclusion of such a "disclaimer.'"

Meantime, Parnes said today that "selling snake oil" to consumers has been practiced for a long time. Now, false promises that are not scientifically proved litter the Web sites of companies selling the products, the FTC said Thursday.

For instance, one company, Cleansing Time Pro, claimed that "people with inoperable cancers sent home to die" have used the product with "astonishing results."

Another company, Bioque, claimed that, "the medical profession has recognized Serum GV as the only available and effective topical treatment for skin cancer."

Parnes said that of the companies the FTC already settled with, the smallest sold about $9,000 worth of products with false claims and the largest sold about $800,000 worth of those products. She added that restitution for deceptive advertising ranged from $9,000 to $250,000.

"This case is about truth in advertising," she said. "The companies that have settled with us cannot make the claims that we challenged, and if they continue to make these claims, they'll hear from the FTC."

The latest crackdown is part of a larger effort to curb deceptive advertising. The FTC said it initially sent warning letters to 112 Web sites. When the commission followed up a few months later, about 30 percent of them had closed their sites or eliminated the claims they made in selling their products.

The FTC said it reviewed the remaining sites, referring some of them to the FDA and others to other countries where necessary.

Of the companies the FTC has not yet settled with, "Some of them have taken their Web sites down and changed their sites and some of them haven't," Parnes said.

The six companies that have settled are required to send letters to the people who bought their prodcuts, Parnes said, adding that four of them will take consumer redress.

Spohn, meantime, said she will battle the lawsuit.

"I'm not against chemo and radiation," she said. "I just don't think that should be our only choice."

"If we lose this, then we have lost a major battle, and our only recourse will be to take drug-based modalities in treating any kind of disease. They will literally take our right away to buy a vitamin out of the store," she said.

To prevent consumers from being duped online, the Federal Trade Commission also launched a public education campaign Thursday, and posted a YouTube video reminding people to talk to their doctors rather than trust the "cures" advertised online.

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