Any medical advance always brings along con men hoping to exploit the news with useless or even dangerous “medicine” of their own that they can lie about to sell to people who don’t yet know how to spot fakes. Personalized medicine, treatment that uses genetic information to improve people’s health, has now reached the point where companies eager to cheat people excited by its promise are sprouting up. The Federal Trade Commission has taken the first steps to quashing these 21st century snake-oil salesmen in a settlement finalized Tuesday with two “personalized nutritional supplement” companies.
Genomics and personalized medicine has the potential to help countless people by diagnosing cancer earlier, treating genetic diseases and even restoring organs and tissue. It’s still early days for the field and the FDA and FTC are watching closely as techniques and products are developed. GeneLink, Inc. and its former subsidiary, foruTMInternational Corp., were also watching, and created an entire scam around the idea of personalized medicine. Customers would send them a cheek swab and the companies claimed they would analyze the DNA and use it to make nutritional supplements and skin repair serum that was “scientifically proven” to work all kinds of miracles. Diabetes, heart disease, insomnia and a host of genetic deficiencies could all be cured by the supplements, the companies claimed, all for more than $100 a month, since of course the cures wouldn’t be permanent.
Obviously all of it was nonsense, as much as any fake medical peddler from the crazy mixes of opium and alcohol sold in the 19th century, to the electricity or magnetism-based treatments of mid-century. It still goes on today but there are strict rules about what so-called “holistic” medicine makers can claim their pills and powders do, and that’s why Genelink and foru got in trouble.
“This case is about the consequences of making false claims,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in a release. “It doesn’t matter whether the claims deal with the benefits of direct-to-consumer genetic testing or the privacy of personal information. It’s against the law to deceive people about your product and to make promises you don’t keep.”
The settlement was first proposed in January but went through review and public comment before getting finalized this week. The companies have to stop claiming their placebos do anything to help people with diseases by affecting their genes without actual scientific proof, and they can’t pretend to have or misrepresent real science to sell their “medicine” either.
In case all of that wasn’t enough, the companies also got in trouble for basic security lapses.
“To add insult to injury, GeneLink and foru also allegedly failed to take reasonable and appropriate security measures to safeguard personal information collected from nearly 30,000 people,” wrote FTC consumer education specialist Colleen Tressler in a blog post. “That’s enough to give anyone insomnia.”
Those same orders from the FTC require them to stop lying about their security and they have to submit data security programs they use to audits every other year for the next two decades.
Of course all of this is less about these two companies than it is about nipping the practice of fake personalized medicine in the bud. People have the right to sell and buy the hokum, but they can’t lie about it actually curing diseases. It’s inevitable that the next medical con is just around the corner, but hopefully it won’t be necessary for the FTC to go after other companies for the same lies as these at least.
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