Posted 24 September 2014
By Alexander Gaffney, RAC
The US Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) long history of Warning Letters marked a new milestone today after regulators chided three companies, including one which marketed its product on a medium never before cited by FDA: Pinterest.
The letters, released by FDA on 24 September 2014, follow FDA concern that some companies are marketing unproven, ineffective and potentially dangerous treatments to patients wary of the Ebola virus. Three companies—Natural Solutions Foundation of New Jersey, dōTERRA International of Utah, and Young Living of Utah—all received letters from FDA demanding they cease marketing their products using claims which might imply they could either treat Ebola or prevent patients from contracting the disease.
"Unfortunately, during outbreak situations, fraudulent products claiming to prevent, treat or cure a disease almost always appear," FDA said in a statement. "There are no approved treatments for Ebola available for purchase on the Internet."
But for seasoned watchers of FDA, the most interesting aspect of the Warning Letters may not be their substance—though the Natural Solutions letter is rare in that it was jointly sent by both FDA and the Federal Trade Commission—but rather the sources they cite.
FDA has long included references in its Warning Letters to the social media platforms Facebook and Twitter, and has gone as far as to determine that Facebook "Likes" can be construed as promotional claims that misbrand a product. (1, 2) But despite FDA issuing so-called "social media" guidance, it had yet to so much as mention on particular social network medium: Pinterest.
The social network is an image-based platform characterized by people "pinning" images that they like to their accounts. For example, FDA maintains a Pinterest account where it pins infographics about its regulatory activities.
But Utah-based Young Living and dōTERRA International both maintain Pinterest accounts used to make false claims about their products, FDA said in its Warning Letters to each company.
dōTERRA, for example, marketed a peppermint essential oil product. Its Pinterest page included an image which stated the product could be used to treat asthma, autism, brain injury, bacterial infections, fever, cold sores and other ailments. The page hosts dozens of other images, the majority of which make similar claims about essential oil products sold by the company.
Young Living made similar claims on its Pinterest page, FDA claimed. The company's product were claimed to be able to treat arthritis, Lupus, arteriosclerosis, hypertension, cancer, insomnia, heart disease and more.
FDA's interest in Pinterest is notable in that the medium is far more difficult to scan than text-based platforms like Twitter and Facebook. As such, it's likely that FDA won't seek out Pinterest pages as the basis of an entire Warning Letter, but rather as additional evidence to substantiate claims within a Warning Letter.