The Justice Department, together with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), today announced the entry of stipulated orders for permanent injunction and civil penalty judgments against three distributors in relation to their allegedly deceptive COVID-19 claims made when marketing essential oils and nutritional supplements.
Tina Wong, a pediatrician based in California, Eliza Johnson Bacot, a nurse practitioner based in Georgia, and Lauren Busch, a former registered nurse based in Utah, each agreed to pay $15,000 in civil penalties and to permanent injunctive relief to resolve allegations involving deceptive COVID-19 claims made in connection with their marketing of essential oils and nutritional supplements. The stipulated orders resolve lawsuits the government filed in the U.S. District Courts for the Central District of California (Wong), Northern District of Georgia (Bacot), and District of Utah (Busch).
According to the court filings, the defendants are or were distributors for doTERRA International, LLC, a Utah-based multi-level marketing company that sells essential oils, supplements, and other products. The government alleged that, in public webinars that took place in January 2022, each defendant represented that products promoted and offered for sale prevent, reduce the risk or severity of, or cure COVID-19 and long-haul COVID-19 and counteract purported negative effects of COVID-19 vaccinations. Among the many deceptive claims that the government alleged that defendants made were: that the company’s chewable products help prevent children from contracting COVID-19 (Wong); that inhaling essential oils inhibit spike proteins (Busch) and viral replication (Bacot); that certain essential oils prevent the binding of the virus to human cells and help prevent one from contracting COVID-19 (Wong); that certain of the company’s products minimize inflammation from long-haul COVID-19 (Busch); and that the company’s supplements reduce purported negative health effects of COVID-19 vaccinations (Busch). The government alleged that no published report of any well-controlled human clinical study substantiates defendants’ COVID-19-related claims.
The COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act, enacted in December 2020, makes it unlawful, for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency, to engage in a deception in commerce associated with the treatment, cure, prevention, mitigation, or diagnosis of COVID 19. Persons who violate the COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act may be subject to civil penalties, injunctive relief, and other remedies available under the Federal Trade Commission Act.
The stipulated orders bar each defendant from making COVID-19 prevention, treatment, or cure claims for any product or service, except for claims specifically approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Further, the orders require that any disease treatment, mitigation, or cure claims that each defendant makes in connection with the marketing of any food, drug, or dietary supplement be supported by a randomized, double-blind, and placebo-controlled human clinical trial and that competent and reliable scientific evidence substantiate other health benefit and efficacy claims that each defendant makes when promoting or selling any food, drug, or dietary supplement. Each defendant also agreed to be enjoined from misrepresenting the results of any study regarding the efficacy of a food, drug, or dietary supplement.
“The Department of Justice remains vigilant in its efforts to stem the deceptive promotion of supposed COVID-19 treatments that have no proven benefits in combatting the disease,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “We will continue working with our law enforcement and agency partners to stop those who seek financial gain by peddling unproven cures for COVID-19.”
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) referred these cases and the stipulated orders to the Department of Justice. The cases were handled by attorneys in the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch, including Senior Litigation Counsel Christina Parascandola and Trial Attorney Zachary Dietert and Assistant Director Gabriel H. Scannapieco, in conjunction with attorneys at the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection/Division of Advertising Practices.
The claims made in the complaints are allegations that the United States would have to prove if the cases had proceeded to trial.
On May 17, 2021, the Attorney General established the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to marshal the resources of the Department of Justice in partnership with agencies across government to enhance efforts to combat and prevent pandemic-related fraud. The Task Force bolsters efforts to investigate and prosecute the most culpable domestic and international actors and assists agencies tasked with administering relief programs to prevent fraud by, augmenting and incorporating existing coordination mechanisms, identifying resources and techniques to uncover fraudulent actors and their schemes, and sharing and harnessing information and insights gained from prior enforcement efforts. For more information on the Department’s response to the pandemic, please visit https://www.justice.gov/coronavirus.
Additional information about the Consumer Protection Branch and its enforcement efforts may be found at http://www.justice.gov/civil/consumer-protection-branch. For more information about the FTC, visit its website at https://www.ftc.gov.