States must protect against deluge of online health misinformation

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If you were to venture a guess at the number of ads you see daily, chances are you’d be way off the mark. With the explosion of digital advertising, it is estimated that the average person now sees up to 10,000 advertisements every single day, a mind-numbing figure by any measure. This advertising avalanche leads most of us to automatically filter out all but the most relevant messages, but even then evaluating the claims and promises that belie each ad is nearly impossible without a healthy commitment to due diligence.

Nowhere is this due diligence more critical than in evaluating products pertaining to consumer safety, and nowhere is vigilance more necessary. Bad actors in the consumer marketplace are not novel, but with increased direct-to-consumer options, misinformation and misleading claims are on the upswing.

The pandemic has underscored that oversight is especially critical in the health care marketplace, where Americans need clear and concise guidelines to ensure they are making safe choices for themselves and their families. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has initiated several regulations to mitigate consumer risks. But many industries still largely operate on an honor code system, resulting in consumers themselves carrying the burden of serving as truth detectors. 

Dietary supplements are a well-known example of how a lack of information can harm consumers’ health, sending thousands of people to the ER every year. Under current law, dietary supplements are not reviewed by the FDA with the same level of scrutiny and security as prescription drugs, resulting in cases such as a Rhode Island resident’s death from a popular yet unapproved weight-loss product purchased through an online pharmacy. 

Products marketed on claims of advanced technology present their own set of challenges. A prime exhibit of a dangerously misrepresented health product involving novel technology is over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids. These products are designed to assist individuals with perceived mild-to-moderate hearing loss. But there is rampant misinformation on whom these products help or how much assistance they even offer.  

This relatively new industry is currently under review by the FDA to ensure clear regulations are in place to keep consumers safe. But as these rules remain in flux, some OTC hearing aid companies are deliberately targeting vulnerable consumers with deceptive claims that their devices fix hearing loss when, in fact, they merely amplify sound. There is, of course, a big difference between the two, and confusion or misuse on the part of the user can easily lead to injury or death.

The list of potential trap doors in health care-related products could fill a lengthy scroll: telemedicine, at-home blood pressure monitors, online medication and many others bombarding us in ads wherever we look. These are the products that are heavily advertised and easily accessible without professional medical oversight, creating the potential of more harm than good.

Thankfully, many state attorneys general (AG) are formulating reasonable guidelines and standing up against bad actors. With regard to dietary products, a group of 14 state AGs called on Congress to investigate the herbal supplements industry and protect American consumers. And just this year, Michigan AG Dana Nessel issued a notice of intended action to an Arizona business because it allegedly advertised its personal sound amplification product (PSAP) as a hearing aid. These actions highlight the importance of consumer safety efforts from the states, and not just Washington alone.

In an effort to balance the scales, our organization recently launched a consumer safety initiative to help bring attention to misinformation about products that directly affect public health. By correcting this warped narrative and educating consumers, we hope to raise the profile of marketplace misbehavior so that regulators, attorneys general and lawmakers will hold bad actors accountable for the potential harm of false and misleading claims and putting consumers in harm’s way.

With the deluge in advertising and “miracle” claims of novel technology, caveat emptor (buyer beware) is no longer sufficient in protecting consumer health and safety. Without the direct oversight of a medical professional, the risk from purchasing products online grows immensely. Lacking clear and consistent guidance at the federal level, it’s imperative that state leaders set the standard for consumer safety and never permit their constituents’ well-being to be left to chance. 

Gerard Scimeca is an attorney and serves as chairman and co-founder of CASE, Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.

Tags choice Consumer protection dana nessel Dietary supplement Direct-to-consumer advertising Food and Drug Administration misinformation Prescription drug

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