Doctors who tout iffy "cures" will face critical eye of FTC

Doctors should check out the scientific proof and evaluate financial motives before deciding whether to endorse a product on TV.

By Tanya Albert amednews correspondent — Posted Sept. 27, 2004

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Physicians setting out to appear in infomercials or television ads need to be worried about far more than whether they're having a good hair day.

The Federal Trade Commission recently announced that it's taking a closer, more critical look at doctors who endorse products, such as baldness cures and weight-loss remedies, on television.

Doctors who tout products that aren't scientifically sound could face financial penalties, legal orders that would stop them from appearing in future commercials and the risk of negative publicity.

"These commercials, which are growing in number, taint the whole profession," said FTC Commissioner Tom Leary. "Doctors still have a high level of esteem in the United States."

That level of esteem, Leary said, gives added credibility to a product when a physician endorses it -- a credibility that couldn't be achieved if someone without medical training was doing the promotion.

The American Medical Association supports the FTC's decision to look more closely at doctors who support products in infomercials and other television advertisements. The Association has policy that backs the commission's enforcement efforts and the FTC's rules on expert endorsements.

AMA President-elect J. Edward Hill, MD, agrees that the public is more likely to find a product more believable if a physician endorses it. He said doctors promoting products should use the same scientific standards they would apply when they are treating a patient in the office and deciding the best course of treatment.

"Doctors need to be careful," Dr. Hill said. "There is an ethical duty in recommending a product that is being used to treat a medical condition."

How to avoid trouble

Staying out of trouble should not be difficult for doctors. The general principles in deciding whether to endorse a product are similar to the ones that guide them in their everyday medical decision-making.

For starters, Leary said, doctors shouldn't hold themselves out as experts in areas in which they aren't knowledgeable. For example, if the product deals with nutrition, the physician who is recommending it should be an expert in nutrition.

Here are some other tips to prevent doctors from endorsing products that ultimately could land them in hot water with the FTC:

  • Get scientific proof. Doctors should do their own evaluations or tests to ensure that a product holds up to the claims the manufacturer -- and the physician as an endorser -- are making. Leary said doctors should evaluate the product themselves or review studies that someone with the right degree of expertise has done.
  • Do a gut test. Doctors should be wary of situations in which their own financial gain trumps the interests of the people using the product.
  • Give full disclosure. If doctors have any involvement in the product beyond what the consumer might expect, they need to disclose that in the commercial. For example, consumers might expect that a physician is being paid for his or her appearance in the commercial, but doctors who also have a financial stake in how much of the product is sold need to share that information.

The FTC has brought cases against physicians and other health experts acting as endorsers in the past. But in many cases it was more likely that the FTC would pursue action against the advertisers and not those promoting the product in the commercial.

The commission's intensified focus on physician endorsers is due in part to consumers' preoccupation with health care concerns, Leary said.

"The FTC has broad jurisdiction in virtually every sector of the economy," he said. "At this point in time we are focusing on health care. It is as important as any sector in the economy, and there is a heightened public concern about specific health care issues."

For example, there has been a big focus on obesity in America, and weight-loss products promoted in ads and infomercials need closer scrutiny, he said.

Infomercials are booming

Pennsylvania retired psychiatrist Stephen Barrett, MD, is thrilled that the government will be paying closer attention to the infomercials. He has been analyzing health-related infomercials for 15 years.

While Dr. Barrett said he hasn't seen a large number of physicians endorsing products, he has witnessed an increase in the volume of infomercials selling weight-loss and other products.

"It's gotten terribly, terribly worse," said Dr. Barrett, who now runs a Web site dedicated to monitoring the commercials. "The cable television channels are flooded with them."

The FTC said it is getting the word of increased enforcement efforts out to doctors to send a signal to others in the health care industry that they shouldn't endorse products that have no proof of efficacy.

"We have a number of cases in the pipeline right now," Leary said. "And I predict we will see more activity."

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Rules to endorse by

According to Federal Trade Commission regulations:

  • An ad is deceptive if it contains a statement or omits information such that it is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances. Information and statements are defined as anything important to a consumer's decision to buy or use the product.
  • Advertisers must have a reasonable basis to support "express" claims, such as "this product will cure your acne," and "implied" claims, such as "90% of my colleagues recommend this product for their patients' acne."
  • In most cases, ads that make health or safety claims must be supported by "competent and reliable scientific evidence," such as tests or studies evaluated by qualified reviewers. Also, the tests or studies must be done using methods that experts in the field accept as accurate.

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External links

Federal Trade Commission guidelines for advertising endorsements and testimonials (link)

Infomercial Watch, operated by retired psychiatrist Stephen Barrett, MD (link)

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