Consumer and social justice groups are asking the FDA and FTC to bring enforcement actions against Joseph Mercola, D.O., and his companies (collectively, the “Mercola Group”) for false, misleading, and deceptive claims that his products will treat, cure, or prevent COVID-19 infections.
In letters sent to the two agencies (FDA here and FTC here), dated July 21st, the Center For Science in the Public Interest, Justice Catalyst, and the People’s Parity Project charge the Mercola Group with capitalizing on the coronavirus. Their deceptive marketing claims and “medical” advice, these organizations say, pose a clear danger to the public,
including the extraordinarily dangerous recommendation that individuals actually try to contract COVID-19 after using the supplements it sells to ameliorate the symptoms.
They’ve done their homework too. In 20-page letters (including extensive footnotes) and an Appendix featuring photos of products, links to Mercola Group websites, and excerpts from Mercola podcasts, they document numerous threats to the public’s health posed by Mercola and his business interests.
Before we get to the details, a brief refresher on Mercola and his history of quackery, a subject covered numerous times here on SBM.
Mercola, a doctor of osteopathy, is an alternative health tycoon, quackery promoter, and marketer of a wide range of products, including dietary supplements, protein bars, cookware, tanning beds, saunas, homeopathic remedies, underwear, cosmetics, spices, books, and pet food. According to the Washington Post, he has donated millions of his $100 million fortune to the anti-vaccine movement. One M.O. fueling his bank account is the promotion of dubious medical advice touting a remedy, then (surprise!) selling his particular brand of that remedy via a Mercola-owned company, all the while pretending that his medical counsel was never, ever intended for promotional purposes.
His quack health advice includes:
- Vitamin C as a viable option for measles prevention.
- Vitamin D for flu prevention.
- Thermography as superior to mammograms for breast cancer detection.
- Misinformation about screening colonoscopies, such as vastly overstating the complication rate.
- Tullio Simoncini’s cancer quackery, which claims that all cancer is really a fungus because it’s “always white” and that baking soda injections are an effective treatment.
David Gorski referred to that last one as “among the most ridiculous ‘alternative cancer cures’ I’ve ever seen”, which says a lot. As Harriet Hall warns,
the safest course is to assume that anything on [Mercola’s] website is false unless you can verify it as true by consulting other sources that are reliable.
Mercola’s swindles have gotten him into trouble with the feds before. In one settlement with the FTC, Mercola and his companies paid over $5 million and agreed to stop selling tanning beds, which he claimed could reduce the risk of skin cancer.
Apparently, Mercola is not one to learn from his experiences, nor does he have any shame, which brings us back to his false and misleading COVID-19 claims. He was recently named one of the biggest social media “super-spreaders” of COVID-19 misinformation by NewsGuard, a company that evaluates and rates news and information websites. Now, consumer groups are out to stop his mendacious marketing, asking the FDA, with jurisdiction over unlawful claims that a product can prevent, treat, or cure disease, and the FTC, with jurisdiction over false and misleading advertising, to take enforcement action against the Mercola Group.
They argue that the Mercola Group is a danger to public health because it “frequently disseminates false and deceptive claims”, which are consumed by a substantial internet audience (Mercola.com “is viewed by ‘millions of people daily'”) and fueled by robust sales (“millions of dollars in products annually”).
He is, for example, preemptively downplaying the effectiveness of potential COVID-19 vaccines, even warning the public that any potential vaccine would likely be deadly. On a podcast posted April 5, 2020, Mercola told listeners complete falsehoods about the risks of vaccines, saying:
For every life being saved by a vaccine, you may have another 10, 20, 100 people who are either killed or permanently injured as a result of that vaccine.
Mercola also endorsed his podcast guest’s incendiary assertion that people would probably be dragged from their homes and vaccinated against their will.
Noting that their “false and misleading COVID-19 claims are really just a thinly-veiled and self-serving attempt to sell its products”, the consumer groups’ letters catalog the connection between Mercola’s “medical” advice, which appear in website articles (e.g., “Nutrition and Natural Strategies Offer Hope Against COVID-19”) and in his podcast, and corresponding Mercola Group products which just happen to fill Mercola’s prescription.
Following this playbook, for example, Mercola wrote articles and spoke extensively (and falsely) over the last several months about the effectiveness of vitamin C to prevent and treat COVID-19, including his claim, without evidence, that a Chinese study “is likely to show” that IV vitamin C will successfully treat COVID-19-induced pneumonia. Mercola and his podcast guests also told listeners, again without evidence, that “even a small amount of vitamin C” reduces the risk of dying from COVID-19, “even in the most severe cases”. As an alternative to IV C administered by a physician, Mercola and guests suggested “liposomal” vitamin C tablets, which are (wait for it) featured prominently in Mercola Group’s online store.
Blaming the media for hiding this information from consumers, Mercola advised on his podcast that vitamin D, which he (dangerously) recommended in high doses, will help prevent severe cases of COVID-19 when used in combination with vitamin C and other dietary supplements. Mercola also told listeners that they should use a test kit to determine current levels of vitamin D and proper dosage. Needless to say, his online store sells a vitamin D test kit ($65) as well as a test kit for vitamin D and other nutrients ($165).
Mercola, or his podcast guests, have also touted, and the Mercola Group sells:
- Melatonin, which he claims is “proven to decrease the risks of COVID-19 infection” and can treat COVID-19 as well.
- Glycyrrhizin, the active ingredient in licorice, which “could be a treatment for COVID-19” (as well as herpes, HIV, hepatitis, influenza, encephalitis, pneumonia, SARS, and several other viruses).
- Molecular hydrogen, which has, according to Mercola, “powerful and antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, making it potentially useful for COVID-19” and “preliminary results” from prominent doctors investigating its use “are encouraging”. The most effective way to consume molecular hydrogen, he claims, is via tablets that are dissolved in water, the same form he sells.
- Astaxanthin, a derivative of microalgae, which, Mercola says, calms the immune system and thereby reduces the risk of sepsis, organ failure, and death. (Apparently, in addition to preventing the disease, Mercola aims to cover each and every symptom and complication of COVID-19 with a product he sells.)
- N-acetyl cysteine, which “may be effective at fighting the blood clotting and strokes occurring in many COVID-19 cases as well as reducing the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome.”
- Prebiotics, probiotics, and “sporebiotics”, based on Mercola’s notion that COVID-19 infections may enable Prevotella bacteria to colonize the lungs, causing severe symptoms associated with the disease. He especially touts the “sporebiotic” Bacillus spores, which, he suggests, may be even more effective than antibiotics at fighting the Prevotella.
- Saunas, which, Mercola told his podcast listeners, can raise your core body temperature, thereby “preventatively treat[ing] any lingering infection that’s just starting to go around.” (Sadly, Mercola Group saunas are currently unavailable due to a “redesign”.)
- Ozone, to which Mercola devoted an entire podcast: “ozone therapy appears to be even more effective than intravenous vitamin C and to me it’s tragic that no one’s touching that with a 10-foot pole to treat this.” The Mercola Group sells air purifiers touted as generating ozone.
- Elderberry extract, spirulina, beta-glucan, lipoic acid, and sulforaphane, all of which, according to the Mercola Group’s Coronavirus Resource Guide, “may be of particular benefit against COVID-19.”
As the consumer groups patiently explain, after each description of Mercola’s mendacity, they “are not aware of any scientific evidence, let alone properly conducted RCTs, that [the product in question] prevents or treats COVID-19 infection” or there is “no credible scientific evidence” to support his claims.
After discussing previous regulatory actions involving Mercola, they argue that prior cease and desist warnings “have been insufficient to prevent this fraud and more action is needed”, up to and including warning letters followed by compliance monitoring and, if necessary, enforcement actions in federal court seeking permanent injunctions, civil penalties, and seizure of the offending products.
Among the regulatory actions described was an investigation by Illinois authorities and a call for revocation or suspension of Mercola’s medical license by the Chief of Medical Prosecutions. How that matter was resolved is not entirely clear and, as of June 25, 2020, Mercola’s medical licenses are still active in Illinois and Florida, a shameful indictment of the Medical Boards in those states.
There is something terribly wrong about a system that allows a multi-millionaire charlatan, using his medical credentials as a badge of authority, to fleece the public based on their understandable pandemic fears, all while his fellow physicians are on the front lines treating COVID-19, with far less compensation and at great risk to their safety.