Buyers should be wary of imported products marketed as dietary supplements and nonprescription drug products sold at ethnic or international stores, flea markets, swap meets or online, according to a consumer update on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website. Cariny Nunez, MPH, a public health adviser in the Office of Minority Health at FDA, said health scammers often target advertising to people who prefer to shop at nontraditional places, especially those who have limited English proficiency and limited access to healthcare services and information. “These scammers know that ethnic groups who may not speak or read English well, or who hold certain cultural beliefs, can be easy targets,” Nunez said in the report. For example, Native Americans, Latinos, Asians and Africans may have a long tradition of turning to more herbal or so-called “natural” remedies. Many advertisers put the word “natural” somewhere on the package of a product, knowing it inspires trust in certain groups.
But just because a product claims to be natural doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe, Gary Coody, RPh, FDA’s national health fraud coordinator, said in the report. A product said to be natural is not necessarily of hidden drug ingredients. Products also may be contaminated or contain potentially harmful chemicals or drug ingredients not listed on the label.
The consumer update reported that many products that claim to help people lose weight contain hidden and dangerous prescription drug ingredients such as sibutramine. Sibutramine was in Meridia, a formerly FDA-approved drug that was removed from the market in October 2010 because clinical data indicated it posed an increased risk of heart problems and strokes.
An ingredient contained in an FDA-approved drug product is not always safe in the dosages or amounts used in these nonprescription products, according to Coody. Scammers seek out ethnic populations who are overweight or have serious conditions such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes or heart disease. They target consumers looking for easy, and sometimes less expensive, solutions to difficult problems. Using these products could mean delayed treatment for serious diseases.
Others illegally sell imported antibiotics without a prescription and with no physician oversight. According to Coody, this can easily lead to misuse and overuse, a key factor contributing to antibiotic resistance, meaning they might not be as effective in stopping infections when they’re truly needed. And some products marketed as dietary supplements resemble antibiotic products marketed in foreign countries — but actually don’t contain any antibiotics.
“It’s not surprising that people are more comfortable with familiar products that claim to come from their home country or are labeled and marketed in the consumer’s native language, whether they buy them at a U.S. market or get them from friends and family who have brought them from home,” Nunez said in the report.
The law does not require companies who make dietary supplements to get FDA approval before marketing their products, according to the report.
To comment, email [email protected]