CAMLAW: Complementary and Alternative Medicine Law Blog

Noni Juice Claims Draw Fire

Noni juice may be a CAM therapy, or it may be just another elixir, based on one of nature's secrets, whose proponents' claims take complementary and alternative medicine too far outside legal safety.

"A new wave of elixirs promise miraculous properties, from treating depression to tackling cancer," reports the Sydney Morning Herald in "Treating ailments with 'wonder-juice'."

Noni juice appears to be over-touted, at least with respect to incurring the eye of some prosecutorial interest:

'Along with Himalayan goji berries, Brazilian acai berries, mangosteens and the ubiquitous wheatgrass, the noni is the latest form of "wonder juice" that word-of-mouth - and some retailers - suggests will soothe almost any ailment....Noni juice is made from mature Morinda citrifolia fruit originating in the South Pacific islands, where it has long been used, especially in Tahiti, as a traditional medicine. But the claims made about it and goji juice are remarkable.

'MX recently went with the goji hype, saying "the nutritionally rich fruit is making the leap from celebrity lips to suburban pantry" and quoting shock-jock Stan Zemanek as dubbing it "fruit Viagra". It also backed noni juice, used by Madonna, Liz Hurley and the like, as giving an "immune system boost".

'Two weeks ago, the Queensland Health Department prosecuted a Brisbane food retailer for making illegal claims about noni juice being a life-saving elixir, and levelled a $16,000 fine. Through website ads and brochures, the retailer of Tropical Gold Noni Juice said the drink could be used to treat cancer, stroke and depression.'

In the U.S., claiming that a dietary supplement or nutritional therapy can treat a disease (especially such as those listed above) can trigger standards for new drug approval. And a complementary and alternative medicine provider who makes excessive claims is opening up liability for potential malpractice.

The article continues:

'And in 2003, a Victorian-based Internet trader was instructed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to give refunds to people who bought products via his website because of false or misleading representations about the products, including noni juice. "In this instance," the ACCC reported, "the health claims made were targeted towards the most vulnerable consumer, those with serious diseases and illnesses such as AIDS, cancer, herpes and hepatitis."'

The author notes that 'cruising noni and goji juice websites reveals some outrageous assertions....One enthusiastic US site says noni can be used to treat everything from attention deficit disorder, arthritis and polio to "brain problems" and (get this) severed fingers. Just juice up and point the way.

'The site of a distributor, Tahitian Noni, keeps it vague: "Experience with TAHITIAN NONI (TM) juice consumers indicates that approximately 25 per cent of individuals will experience a noticeable difference from 3 weeks of use or less, 50 per cent from 3-8 weeks and 25 per cent from 8-12 weeks." Just what those "differences" are remains a mystery.'

The reporter is rightly concerned that 'the more outrageous claims may go unfettered.' Consumer zealousness may be difficult to control, particularly with wide dissemination across the Internet. And although noni is not inexpensive, it has not been subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny.

The concern for what the Federation of State Medical Boards, in its Guidelines on Physician Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, called "indirect harm:"

'Another huge concern is that if people believe their ailments can be fixed by a very expensive juice, they may delay getting effective medical treatment. "It becomes almost a religious belief in the product," she says. "I don't have any doubt that some people take these products and suddenly feel better. The placebo effect is very strong."'

'Stanton has written about the marketing of noni and goji juice for the weekly journal Australian Doctor, noting the wild health claims made about them. She went through all the so-called scientific studies cited by the main websites and found that even negative coverage in a medical journal was counted by sellers as "scientific backing".'

Apparently there is a "Professor of Complementary Medicine" in Australia, who is quoted in the article:

'Marc Cohen, Professor of Complementary Medicine at RMIT University and president of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association, says the idea of the "exotic" plays a big part in the attraction of untested juices such as noni and goji. "There is a perception that because it's exotic and has mysterious origins it must be better for you," he says. "I say, if you want to pay $80 or whatever for goji juice, why not have a fresh fruit and vegetable juice instead? Or have some frozen blueberries, which we know have great health properties and are much cheaper."'

Well, commercial nutritional products seem to pack more punch than gathering berries off trees -- even in Australia.

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