TriVita Inc. of Scottsdale, AZ, will refund $3.5 million to consumers for marketing its cactus juice as a cure-all for pain, inflammation, and respiratory and skin problems. All those health claims are unfounded, according to a unanimous Federal Trade Commission. The marketers of the cactus-based fruit drink have agreed to the refunds to settle FTC charges that they deceived consumers with unsupported claims that their drink, Nopalea, would treat a variety of health problems. TriVita markets 32-ounce bottles of the “prickly pear” fruit drink, derived from the Nopal cactus, for up to $39.99, plus shipping and handling. FTC’s settlement with TriVita is part of its campaign to stop over-hyped health claims by dietary supplement companies that largely escape regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the agency’s complaint, advertisements on the defendants’ websites tout “Inflammation Relief without a Prescription.” The defendants’ infomercials featuring celebrity endorser and former supermodel Cheryl Tiegs market Nopalea as an “anti-inflammatory wellness drink” that relieves pain, reduces and relieves joint and muscle swelling, improves breathing and alleviates respiratory problems, and relieves skin conditions. Trivita’s former chief science officer, Brazos Minshew, also appears in the infomercials and links inflammation to allergies, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and diabetes. He notes in one of the infomercials that “over 200 articles published and archived at the National Institutes of Health demonstrate one thing: the Nopal cactus will reduce inflammation.” The infomercials also feature testimonials by satisfied consumers, who, according to the FTC complaint, are actually paid employees of the defendants. “These kinds of unfounded claims are unacceptable, particularly when they impact consumers’ health,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Advertisers who cannot back up their claims with competent and reliable scientific evidence are violating the law.” The defendants are charged with violating Sections 5 and 12 of the FTC Act by:

  • Making unsupported claims that Nopalea significantly improves breathing and relieves sinus infections and other respiratory conditions, and provides significant relief from pain, swelling of the joints and muscles, and psoriasis and other skin conditions.
  • Making false claims that the health benefits of Nopalea were proven by clinical studies.
  • Failing to disclose that supposedly ordinary consumer endorsers were, in fact, TriVita salespeople who received commissions for selling the defendants’ products.

Besides TriVita, the complaint names as defendants marketing firm Ellison Media Company, and Michael R. and Susan R. Ellison, who control both companies. Under the proposed settlement order, the defendants are barred from making the health claims alleged in the complaint when marketing Nopalea or any food, drug, or dietary supplement without randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled human clinical tests conducted by qualified researchers; making any health claims without competent and reliable scientific evidence; misrepresenting that health benefits are clinically proven when they are not, and failing to disclose any material connection between endorsers of their products and themselves. Supplements do not require approval from FDA before they go on the market. FTC says that consumers should carefully evaluate advertising for products that claim to cure diseases.