FDA and FTC Urged to Bring Enforcement Proceedings Against Joseph Mercola for False COVID-19 Health Claims
CSPI to Testify on COVID Scams in Senate Commerce Committee Today
Online salesman Joseph Mercola falsely claims that at least 22 vitamins, supplements, and other products available for sale on his web site can prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19 infection, according to letters submitted today to the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and two nonprofit legal groups. CSPI, Justice Catalyst Law, and the People’s Parity Project are asking the agencies to bring enforcement proceedings against Mercola, an osteopathic physician who offers “medical” advice and sells supplements and other products on the highly trafficked Mercola.com web site.
CSPI policy director Laura MacCleery will cite Mercola’s marketing practices when she testifies this afternoon before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the topic of protecting Americans from COVID-19 scams.
Mercola.com, which describes itself as the world’s “#1 most visited natural health website” and viewed by “millions of people daily,” features a “Coronavirus Resource Guide” which claims that vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, zinc ionophores, selenium, and other supplements and devices he sells can prevent, treat or cure COVID-19. On his podcast, Mercola and a guest claimed that “when we have even a small amount of vitamin C, our risk of dying [from COVID-19], even in the most severe cases, goes down.” Mercola lists vitamin D as “#4” on a list of tips to “combat coronavirus,” and suggests consumers use a test kit to determine their supplemental dosage. Mercola sells both the test kits and the pills. There is no adequate evidence for any of these claims.
Even worse, Mercola advised consumers on a March 29 episode of his podcast and in an accompanying article on his site that intentionally contracting the virus after consuming purportedly immunity-boosting supplements would confer greater protection against COVID-19 than a vaccine would, saying: “So, scary as it may sound, the best thing is to get the infection, and have a strong immune system to defend against it so you won’t even display any symptoms.”
“None of the products Mercola Group sells are FDA-approved medical treatments for COVID-19,” wrote CSPI, Justice Catalyst Law, and People’s Parity Project to the FDA and FTC. “Thus, Dr. Mercola’s self-serving and unsupported theory is extremely dangerous to consumers, as well as an illegal disease treatment claim.”
“Melatonin has been proven to decrease the risks of COVID-19 infection,” Mercola writes in one article; he sells both melatonin and another supplement said to increase melatonin. “Molecular hydrogen has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, making it potentially useful for COVID-19,” he writes in another; he sells molecular hydrogen, too. Mercola promotes consumption of zinc, “a vastly underrated player in the COVID-19 pandemic,” to ward off coronavirus, either on its own or in combination with quercetin and epigallocatechin-gallate (he sells all three). Mercola similarly claims selenium, licorice, astaxanthin, N-acetyl cysteine, and prebiotics, probiotics, and sporebiotics are useful to prevent, treat or cure COVID-19, and sells them all either individually or in combination. He even claims that room air purifiers creating ozone, which he sells, can treat COVID-19.
All of the supplements and devices covered by the letters make illegal disease treatment or prevention claims, and are also unsubstantiated and deceptive or false, which are unlawful under applicable FTC and FDA standards. Dietary supplements marketed to prevent or treat any disease—let alone COVID-19—are considered “new drugs” and may not be sold without FDA approval.
“In a pandemic, such untruths pose a clear and urgent danger,” MacCleery will testify this afternoon. “Consumers may develop a false sense of security and fail to practice social distancing or use masks, endangering themselves and everyone around them. They may also harm themselves by taking dangerous doses of supplements, or fail to seek effective medical treatment, believing instead in the promises of charlatans.”
For more than a decade, Mercola has repeatedly come under scrutiny by the FDA and the FTC for making drug-like claims about coconut oil, marketing telethermographic cameras for unapproved medical purposes, and falsely advertising indoor tanning equipment as a way to reduce the risk of skin cancer. A settlement agreement secured by the FTC called for Mercola to issue refunds to 1,300 defrauded customers.
CSPI president Dr. Peter G. Lurie, who served as FDA associate commissioner, says that the FDA and the FTC need to do more to protect consumers from Mercola’s fraudulent marketing. “Joseph Mercola has made millions by promoting the worst kind of health misinformation just to increase his sales of supplements and other products,” Lurie said. “He’s now exploiting consumers’ justifiable fear about contracting COVID-19, falsely claiming that everything from fermented licorice powder to zinc can help prevent or treat the disease. The FDA and the FTC are long overdue to protect consumers from this kind of elaborate con job.”
This is not the first time CSPI has called out a seller of supplements who had attempted to illegally profit from COVID-19. In February, CSPI asked the FDA and FTC to take enforcement action against televangelist Jim Bakker, who used his television show and web site to promote the use of a colloidal silver solution to allegedly kill the coronavirus. In March, the FDA and FTC sent warning letters to Bakker, who has since been sued by attorneys general in New York, Missouri, and Arkansas over the false claims. In June, CSPI asked the FDA, FTC, and Amazon to take action against at least 46 supplements that claimed to prevent or treat viral infections.
Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Richard Adcock (radcock[at]cspinet.org).