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Home > Newsletters > November 2003

Herbal Product Websites May Be Misleading

With herbal product use growing by almost 400 percent in the 1990s, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) decided to take a closer look at how dietary supplements are marketed on the Internet -- an increasingly popular, but poorly regulated way for consumers to access medical information. The survey, outlined in the September 17, 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that more than half of all Internet marketers were in apparent violation of federal law.

"A large number of sites make unauthorized health claims, a concern for physicians because patients may be promised results that are unlikely to occur," said Charles Morris, MD, of BWH’s Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics. "The majority of web sites selling supplements made impermissible claims or omitted required Food and Drug Administration (FDA) disclaimers and important clinical warnings."

Recent data has estimated that 91 million Americans, or approximately 49 percent of the adult population, have used an herbal product, and consumers spent about $18 billion on herbal remedies in 2001. In addition, the Internet has grown as a source of trusted health information for consumers. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Foundation, 62 percent of individuals who used the Internet in 2002 searched for health information, with more than half looking into alternative and complementary therapies.

In their study, Dr. Morris and co-author Jerry Avorn, MD, analyzed 443 sites that sold the eight best-selling herbs (ginkgo, St. John’s wort, echinacea, ginseng, garlic, saw palmetto, kava kava and valerian root) on the most popular search engines. Of the 338 sites that were involved in product sales, 81 percent made one or more health claim and among these sites, 55 percent claimed to treat, prevent, diagnose or cure specific diseases.

Manufacturers of herbal products are not required to submit their health claims to the FDA in advance of marketing, a process required for makers of prescription drugs. As a result, the agency must rely on surveillance of Internet advertising after the sites are up and running. As the BWH research indicates, this style of enforcement has apparently not prevented companies from continuing to make unauthorized claims. The researchers concluded that in addition to the government implementing more effective controls for herbal marketers, clinicians need to discuss dietary supplements, their lack of strict regulation and potential toxic side effects with their patients.

 

This Month's Articles

November 2003
Volume 1, Number 9

Alternative Therapy for Menopausal Women

Herbal Product Websites May Be Misleading

Recent Research

Ask The Doctor

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