FTC says POM Wonderful's health claims in ads are deceptive

POM Wonderful, maker of the punchy bordeaux-colored pomegranate beverage, is facing an FTC lawsuit that says it's been lying to consumers about the drink's health benefits. The suit comes days after the juice maker filed its own complaint saying the agency's new advertising standards impinge on its freedom of speech.

According to POM's lawyers, who sued the FTC earlier this month, the new standards put undue pressure on the company and "injure" its standing in the eyes of consumers. But now POM is really getting squeezed, as regulators say the company deceptively hypes health claims -- such as that drinking its juice could alleviate symptoms of atherosclerosis, blood pressure, prostate cancer, erectile dysfunction, heart disease and high cholesterol.

"Any consumer who sees POM Wonderful products as a silver bullet against disease has been misled," said David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement. "When a company touts scientific research in its advertising, the research must squarely support the claims made. Contrary to POM Wonderful's advertising, the available scientific information does not prove that POM Juice or POMx [Antioxidant Superpill] effectivly treats or prevents these illnesses."

POM's ads appeared in national publications such as Parade, Fitness, and Prevention magazines, as well as in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and on Internet sites pomtruth.com, pomwonderful.com, and pompills.com. They also appear on bus stops, billboards, and tags attached to the product, and in direct newsletters to consumers.

Some ads claimed the juice was backed by an "unheard-of $25 million in medical research" (an ad placed in the Washington Post claimed $32 million), that it was 40% as effective as Viagra, slowed buildup of arterial plaque by 30%, and prevented and even treated prostate cancer.

This is not the first time the FTC has investigated POM for misleading advertising, though previously the company tried to block the probe from becoming public. Now regulators are saying all its claims regarding heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction are false and unsubstantiated, either because they did not result from controlled studies, or because drinking POM Juice was no more effective than a placebo.

POM is the largest processor and distributor of pomegranate products in the U.S. and has a reputation as a ferocious litigator. It says the commission's allegations are baseless.

"We do not make claims that our products act as drugs. What we do, rather, is communicate, through advertising, the promising science relating to pomegranates," said Rob Six, a spokesman for the company. "Our products do not carry the risks associated with pharmaceutical drugs. It's a shame that the government is unable to understand this fundamental distinction, and instead is wasting taxpayer resources to persecute the pomegranate."

POM's sticking point with the FTC earlier this month was that it had altered its criteria for policing advertising, and by doing so was violating the juice maker's First Amendment right. The new criteria, which apply to all food manufacturers, require companies that make health claims related to food, beverages and dietary supplements to conduct at least two clinical studies to prove the veracity of the claims, and to receive prior approval of their ads by the Food and Drug Administration.

That requirement did not exist when POM entered the market in 2002. "The new measures of 'deceptive' advertising now invoked by the FTC are directly contrary to over 20 years of FTC food advertising rules and regulations, and contrary tolaw, including the First and Fifth Amendments," POM said in its lawsuit. The company "spent millions establishing a brand identity that is synonymous with good health," the lawsuit says.

According to a warning letter by the FDA last February, the juice maker's claims wrongly suggested some health conditions unique to men are amenable to self-diagnosis and self-treatment, when in fact they are not.

As recently as August, POM also became the target of a class action suit accusing it of making deceptive claims. The company has also been warned by the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureaus and the UK Advertising Standards Authority over the same practices.
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