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Coronavirus Snake Oil: What Is the Law?

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By Richard Dahl on March 12, 2020 1:42 PM

If you've seen the 2011 movie, "Contagion," you probably remember the character played by Jude Law.

"Contagion" was a well-made thriller about a deadly pandemic involving a virus that ended up killing millions of people, and Law's character, Alan Krumwiede, was the despicable jerk who sought to profit by selling a worthless homeopathic "cure" made from forsythia.

In other words, he was a snake-oil salesman.

The fictional pandemic in that movie was called MEV-1. With a lethality rate of 25%, it was far more deadly than today's real-life COVID-19 and its estimated 2% rate.

While the fictional virus and the real one differ quite a bit, one thing is remaining constant: Snake-oil salesman are selling their wares now, a lot like Jude Law's Alan Krumwiede did in the movie.

Coronavirus Lures a Disgraced Former Televangelist

Exhibit A is Jim Bakker. Remember him? He was the Christian televangelist who gained fame in the 1970s before he was disgraced by a sex scandal, convicted of fraud, and spent five years in prison.

He's been hosting a program called The Jim Bakker Show on the PTL Satellite Network since he got out of the slammer in 2003, and he recently demonstrated that he is still capable of wading into hot legal water. In this case, it was his on-air touting of a product called "Silver Solution," which he and a "naturopathic doctor" on the show suggested could successfully treat the coronavirus.

If it could, it might be worth the $40 price tag for the small bottle. But on March 9, two federal agencies issued a joint statement strongly suggesting that Silver Solution might not be worth it, to put it lightly.

That statement, by the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration, listed Bakker's program and six other companies that are making meritless claims about their products' abilities to prevent or treat COVID-19.

"The companies' products include teas, essential oils, and colloidal silver," the statement said. "The FTC says the companies have no evidence to back up their claims — as required by law."

For Bakker, things got worse very quickly. First, New York Attorney General fired off a cease-and-desist letter that same day. Then, on March 10, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a lawsuit against Bakker and his Morningside Church Productions, requesting a restraining order and permanent injunction to keep Bakker from selling Silver Solution. (Schmitt took action because Bakker's operation is in Branson, Missouri.)

On March 11, Silver Solution had been removed from the program's online store.

FTC Demands Truth in Advertising

With the surge of these questionable products, it's probably a good time to review what the requirements are for selling things that make health claims without any official stamps of governmental approval.

As the FDA and the FTC warned the seven companies on March 9, they must provide scientific evidence to warrant the claims they make.

As long as a product isn't inherently harmful, it's probably not illegal. The legal problems arise when makers make unwarranted claims. The FTC calls it "truth in advertising," and says it will file suit in federal court in cases of "fraud perpetuated on consumers."

"These warning letters are just the first step," said FTC Chairman Joe Simons. "We're prepared to take enforcement actions against companies that continue to market this type of scam."

So if you see products out there like Silver Solution that sound too good to be true, they probably are. In the movie "Contagion," Jude Law's character profits from creating a parallel epidemic of fear, and there may be real-life parallels now. If you are suspicious of coronavirus treatment claims that sound like snake oil, it may be a good idea to contact your state's attorney general's office and let them know.

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