CBD, a cannabis-derived compound that has exploded in popularity, continues to be touted as a treatment for such serious medical conditions as AIDs, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, even though the ingredient has only been approved by FDA to treat seizures associated with two rare forms of epilepsy.
FTC warned three companies in letters that it is illegal to advertise a product can cure, prevent or treat a human disease without competent and reliable scientific evidence to support the statements, the agency announced in a Sept. 10 news release. The companies, which FTC did not name, sell capsules, creams, “gummies,” oils and tinctures containing CBD.
In March 2019, FTC and FDA jointly sent similar letters to three marketers of CBD. Government officials alleged the companies made claims about their products’ ability to treat cancer and other serious diseases without adequate evidence and drug approval from FDA.
FDA has only approved one CBD drug known, Epidiolex (from GW Pharmaceuticals), to treat seizures associated with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy: Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.
But marketers of CBD continue to make various unsupported disease claims, according to federal regulators. One company’s website claimed CBD is more effective than prescription opioid painkillers to relieve “even the most agonizing pain,” according to FTC’s news release.
To support its claims that CBD is “clinically proven” to treat various diseases—including Alzheimer’s disease, addiction to cigarettes, colitis, fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis (MS)—the company stated it has engaged in “thousands of hours of research” with researchers from Harvard, the release said.
The market for CBD has exploded in recent years, with the hemp-derived ingredient showing up in conventional foods, supplements, topicals and other products.
In 2018, hemp-based CBD sales totaled $390 million, according to Hemp Business Journal (HBJ). Based on what HBJ founder Sean Murphy said is a conservative estimate, the publication projected sales of $1.4 billion for 2022. Others have announced more bullish estimates, with the Brightfield Group in 2018 predicting the hemp-derived CBD market would reach $22 billion by 2022.
“With the massive growth of the CBD industry, the FTC seems to be signaling loud and clear that CBD is on its radar,” said Katie Bond, a partner in Washington with the law firm Amin Talati Wasserman LLP, in an email.
Bond said “the warning letters could signal more serious FTC enforcement to come” if the companies targeted by the agency “don’t come into compliance.”
Another company flagged by FTC advertised CBD as a “miracle pain remedy” for acute and chronic pain, including pain from arthritis and cancer treatment, the agency disclosed. Among the diseases the website reportedly claimed CBD is proven to treat: Alzheimer’s disease, AIDs, anxiety, autism, anorexia, bipolar disorder, cancer, Crohn’s disease, depression, diabetes, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), MS, Parkinson’s disease, psoriasis, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, stroke and traumatic brain injuries.
“The third company’s website promotes CBD gummies as highly effective at treating ‘the root cause of most major degenerative diseases, including arthritis, heart disease, fibromyalgia, cancer, asthma and a wide spectrum of autoimmune disorders,’” FTC stated in its news release.
The company further claimed its CBD cream relieves arthritis pain and its CBD oil may effectively treat arthritis, asthma, depression, epilepsy, heart disease, fibromyalgia and PTSD, according to the agency.
In some respects, FTC’s focus on disease claims is “business as usual,” Bond observed. “The FTC is always extremely concerned when it believes claims for a dietary supplement might prompt consumers to forgo needed medical treatment,” the lawyer said.
Kristi Wolff, a partner in Washington with the law firm Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, said the claims addressed in the recent warning letters resemble those targeted in joint warnings letters sent by FDA and FTC in March 2019, and in prior FDA warning letters.
“So, the focus of the concern isn’t new,” Wolff said via email. “But, further enforcement could indicate the agency has made CBD health claims more of a priority as consumers have turned to CBD to address a multitude of issues. I won’t be that surprised if we see some FTC settlements involving CBD products and health claims in the short term.”
The companies targeted in FTC’s recent warning letters were instructed to notify the agency within 15 days of the specific actions they have taken to address its concerns. FTC said it urged the companies to review all claims made for their products, including consumer testimonials, to verify they are supported with competent and reliable scientific evidence.
“The letters also caution selling CBD products without such substantiation could violate the FTC Act,” FTC’s news release stated, “and may result in legal action that could result in an injunction and an order to return money to consumers.”
The agency has the authority under the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act to prevent unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices affecting commerce. It also has authority to seek monetary redress for injuries to consumers.