FTC Attacks "Stabilized Oxygen" Claims

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FTC Attacks "Stabilized Oxygen" Claims

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Various products referred to as "stabilized" or "aerobic" oxygen," are being marketed with claims that they can cure disease by increasing oxygen delivery to the cells. Some claim that "oxygen deficiency" or "oxygen starvation" is an underlying cause of disease and has been increasing because the oxygen content of the earth's atmosphere has been decreasing and junk food does not contain enough oxygen [A, B, C, D]. These claims are absurd -- for several reasons.

  • There is no reason to believe that the products actually deliver oxygen to the body. It is possible to use an electric current to add a tiny amount of oxygen to water, but to access it, a human would need gills.
  • Even if they could, taking oxygen into the stomach through a liquid, pill, or food would not significantly raise the body's blood level of oxygen.
  • Oxygen enters the bloodstream through the lungs. The body adapts to what it needs by changing its breathing rate.
  • The oxygen content of air is not changing and remains constant at 21% regardless of the weather.
  • If enough oxygen is available to sustain life, the body will extract what it needs from the air and deliver what is needed to the cells. Blood returning to the lungs contains surplus oxygen.
  • "Oxygen deficiency" is not an underlying cause of disease.

Two-ounce bottles of "3%"or "5%" solutions cost about $20 per bottle. Earth Portals also markets a higher-priced "super-oxygenated solution at 25% . . . for serious competitive athletes and individuals looking to get the maximum oxygen into the blood stream." At least a dozen companies have marketed such products.

The FTC Reacts

On March 11, 1999, the Federal Trade Commission filed suit charging Rose Creek Health Products, Inc., of Kettle Falls, Washington, its sister corporation (Staff of Life, doing business as R-Garden Internationale), and president Donald L. Smyth with making blatantly false and unsubstantiated health claims for "Vitamin O." [1] The defendants' ads -- which have appeared in USA Today, in other newspapers, and on the Internet -- have claimed that "Vitamin O" can cure or prevent serious diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and lung disease. An National Public Radio report quoted Smyth as saying that his company was selling 50,000 bottles per month [2]. The FTC says that the product appears to be nothing more than salt water.

The defendants had claimed that "Vitamin O," when taken orally, enriches the bloodstream with supplemental oxygen. The ads state that Vitamin O consists of "intact oxygen molecules in a liquid solution of distilled water, sodium chloride and trace materials."

The complaint also states that the defendants, through statements and testimonials contained in their ads, falsely represented that "Vitamin O":

  • administered orally allows oxygen molecules to be absorbed through the gastrointestinal system
  • boosts energy, improves breathing, promotes sound sleep, sharpens concentration and memory,
  • prevents and is an effective treatment for life-threatening diseases, including cancer and pulmonary disease
  • is an effective treatment or prevention for many other physical ailments, including breathing problems, chronic headaches, infections, colds and flu
  • regulates metabolism, aids digestion, relaxes nervous system, and has other beneficial effects on human health
  • was developed by Dr. William F. Koch and used by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronauts during NASA space missions.

On May 3, 1999, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order requiring Rose Creek and Staff of Life to stop making unsubstantiated claims that ingesting "Vitamin O" or spraying it on the skin can cure or prevent ailments. In addition, personal testimonials must include disclaimers.

Depite the injunction, R-Garden continued to use testimonials to promote "Vitamin O." A new booklet, accompanied by an order blank dated 7/7/99, contained more than 150 testimonials claiming benefit for asthma, canker sores, chronic bronchitis, cough, diabetic ulcers, ear infections, fatigue, glaucoma, hemorrhoids, arm and shoulder pain, immune weakness, lung emobolism, memory loss, obesity, prostate problems, shingles, and many other problems. One write-up even claimed that the user was able to stop using a breathing machine [3]. The booklet stated that, "as the research continues, and more people use the product, the results will be even more rewarding." Thirty-five of the write-ups are accompanied by a photograph. Each of the 30 pages containing testimonials included the following message in small print:

DISCLAIMER: These testimonials do not imply results will happen with your use of one of our products. We have no competent or reliable scientific evidence to suggest that the testimonial experience is due to the use of our products. These testimonials are not intended to recommend any supplement as a drug, as a diagnosis for specific illnesses or conditions, nor as a product to eliminate diseases or other medical conditions or complications. We make no medical claims as to the benefits of any of our products to improve medical conditions.

The FTC's guide to dietary supplement advertising states that advertisements must be truthful, not misleading, and presented so that they are actually understood by consumers [4]. A fine-print disclosure at the bottom of a print ad, for example, is unlikely to be an adequate disclaimer. I believe that R-Garden's booklet was still misleading.

Settlement Includes $375,000 Penalty

On May 1, 2000, the FTC announced that Smyth and his companies had signed a consent agreement under which they are prohibited from:

  • Making any unsupported representation that "Vitamin O" or any substantially similar product prevents or is an effective treatment for life-threatening diseases, including but not limited to, cancer, cardiovascular disease and pulmonary disease.
  • Making any unsupported representation that the effectiveness of "Vitamin O" is established by medical or scientific research or studies.
  • Making any untrue representation about the health benefits, performance, efficacy or safety of any other food, drug, or dietary supplement.
  • Falsely stating that any academic, scientific, or government organization, or any individual with medical or scientific training, uses, is affiliated with, or otherwise endorses or supports, the defendants' products.
  • Deceptively representing that any user testimonial or endorsement of a product represents the typical or ordinary experience of members of the public who use the product.
  • Giving their distributors any promotional or marketing materials prohibited by the order.
  • Permitting their distributors to make any representations prohibited by the order.

The defendants are required to notify each of their current and future distributors about the proposed order and to pay $375,000 for consumer redress [5]..

The FTC has indicated that it is looking at similar claims by other companies.

Reference

  1. FTC charges marketer of "Vitamin O" with making false health claims. FTC News Release, March 15, 1999.
  2. Perl R. Extra oxygen anyone? NPR Radio, Jan 26, 1999.
  3. What People Are Saying About "Vitamin O." Kettle Falls, WA: R-Garden Internationale, 1999.
  4. Dietary Supplements: An Advertising Guide for Industry. Washington, DC: Federal Trade Commission, 1998.
  5. Marketers of "Vitamin O" settles FTC charges of making false health claims; will pay $375,000 for consumer redress. FTC news release, May 1, 2000.