Product claims: The same rules apply online

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The Internet has become a major means of marketing products directly to consumers to promote health benefits. Though the Internet does allow companies to provide important information to millions of consumers worldwide, it also provides easy access for regulators monitoring claims being made on a company's Web site.

Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission have sent warning e-mails to several Internet marketers of products that target a vulnerable patient population, diabetics. Thus, claims on a company's Web site may be scrutinized by both the FTC and FDA.

Because both agencies consider claims appearing on company-owned or -sponsored Web sites to be within their enforcement authority, companies marketing products through the Internet should consider these issues:

• The types of claims that may appear on the site: Only structure/function claims and FDA-permitted health claims may be used to promote products.

• Whether the claims are truthful, non-misleading and properly substantiated.

• Links to other Web sites and whether those sites contain objectionable health-related information.

Disease or drug claims may appear on dietary supplement manufacturer, distributor or retailer Web sites only if the claims fall within Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act exceptions. One exception, known as "third-party literature" or the "reading room exception," permits the use of certain publications such as scientific articles, chapters of books, official abstracts of peer-reviewed scientific articles or any other publication as a means of promoting the sale of dietary supplements. The rules are too complex to go into here, but suffice it to say, few companies fully understand these rules.

The Web site's home page should be the central point where all links are provided to various other Web pages within the site and to other sites. The home page would contain links to separate product information Web pages; separate reference or reading room Web pages and separate Web pages that link the site to other Web sites of interest.

• The product information Web page(s) would provide information regarding the use of the dietary supplement, including permissible structure/function claims.

• The reading room or reference Web page(s) should contain only articles and publications that are truthful, non-misleading, provide a balanced view of the scientific evidence and do not contain direct references or links to the products being promoted or sold on the Web site.

• The product information page(s) should not be directly linked to the reference Web page(s) or other Web sites that contain drug or disease claims.

Another important issue is "metatags." Metatags are those imbedded messages that do not necessarily appear on the Web site but permit search engines to find sites. The FDA and FTC take the position that metatags are product claims. So, it is equally important that metatags are permissible structure/function claims and are truthful and non-misleading.

It is important to understand that the FDA and FTC treat Web sites the same as any other promotion materials. And just because you can find it on the Internet does not mean it complies with federal or state laws.

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