WASHINGTON, Nov. 19, 2001 --The Federal Trade Commission is warning Web site operators who suggest using such things as oregano oil or zinc mineral water to treat illnesses like anthrax that it is aware of no scientific proof for such claims and that the Web site operators face prosecution if they continue making unsubstantiated claims.

The warning campaign is based on information gathered via a coordinated Internet surf by the FTC with the help of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), more than 30 state attorneys general, and the California Department of Health Services.

The Internet search focused on products claiming to protect against, detect, prevent, or treat biological and chemical agents, including anthrax. More than 200 sites marketing bioterrorism-related products were uncovered, and additional sites are being evaluated for possible warning letters.

Included in the review were such items as gas masks and protective suits; mail sterilizers; biohazard test kits; homeopathic remedies; and dietary supplements such as colloidal silver, zinc mineral water, thyme, and oregano oil as treatments for contamination by biological agents.

Web sites may be subject to state or federal investigation or prosecution for making deceptive or misleading marketing claims that their products can protect against, detect, prevent, or treat biological or chemical contamination.

"This marketing targets people worried about the prospect of exposure to lethal biological or chemical weapons. The FTC is aware of no scientific basis for any of the self-treatment alternatives being marketed on the Internet," said Howard Beales, FTC's Director of Consumer Protection. "Essentially, these operators need to shut down these areas of their sites or face prosecution. Our best advice for consumers: Consult your physician immediately if you believe you may have been exposed to anthrax or any other biological agents."

John Taylor, the FDA's Director of the Office of Enforcement, noted that the FDA has approved a limited number of products for the treatment of anthrax including, Ciprofloxacin (Cipro), doxycycline, and penicillin G procaine. "However," he added, "there are no products marketed as dietary supplements that have been proven safe or effective for the treatment or prevention of anthrax. Together with the FTC, we've found quite a number of disturbing sites. Companies marketing unapproved or otherwise misbranded products for anthrax or other diseases run a very high risk of FDA enforcement or regulatory action."

In addition, a broad coalition of trade associations representing the dietary supplement industry has indicated that there is no scientific basis for the promotion of dietary supplements as a treatment for anthrax.

Firms or individuals who violate the FTC Act could be subject to a federal district court injunction, enforceable through civil or criminal contempt proceedings; or an administrative cease and desist order, enforceable through civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation. Sellers could also be ordered to make consumer refunds.

Tips for Consumers

For consumers who visit Web sites or receive e-mails claiming to sell products to protect against, detect, prevent, or treat anthrax, small pox, or other biological or chemical health hazards, the FTC recommends:

  • Be wary of unscrupulous marketers who use cyberspace to peddle "miracle" treatments and cures. Many of the ads and Web sites, which feature exotic potions and pills, special curative diets, strange magnetic or electrical devices, or newly discovered treatments, contain questionable claims about the effectiveness and safety of these products or services. The only known effective treatments for biological agents like anthrax or smallpox are approved prescription drugs and vaccines.
  • Talk to your health care professional before you use any medications.
  • Know that some Web sites may sell ineffective drugs.
  • Know from whom you are buying.
  • Don't do business with Web sites that don't give you access to pharmacists to answer questions.
  • Avoid sites that don't provide their name, physical business address, and phone number.
  • Don't purchase drugs from foreign Web sites.