FTC Sued Prevagen Over Representation Of Placebo Results
The FTC sued Prevagen’s marketers. Charge: Unsubstantiated marketing. Is the FTC’s claim meritless? Prevagen says yes — and they’re fighting back.
The case serves as a reminder for dietary supplement marketers: Make sure your promotional materials are in line with FTC compliance standards!
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to Quincy Bioscience (Prevagen Marketers): Your Brain Supplement Marketing Is Misleading!
Who is suing who? The Federal Trade Commission, alongside the New York Attorney General’s office, is suing Quincy Bioscience (“Quincy”) — marketers of Prevagen.
Why is the FTC suing Prevagen’s Marketers? The FTC regularly penalizes companies for promoting questionable findings. But this case is a bit different. The Commission objects to how Quincy presented information, not the veracity of the study from which the information came. Specifically, the FTC condemned Quincy’s failure to disclose allegedly near identical results for both placebo and active participants.
How does Prevagen feel about the lawsuit? Often, companies caught in an FTC web lick wounds, cut losses (and a check), and call it a day. But Quincy is swinging back. The supplement marketer feels the FTC overstepped its bounds and is forcing unfair scientific interpretations down the throats of small businesses.
The Curious Case of the Jellyfish Protein
A jellyfish protein — and active ingredient in Prevagen — calcium researches have used apoaequorin since the 1960s. But newer — arguably fringe — research suggests the substance may enhance memory function. But, like many touted supplements — (omega-3’s come to mind) — the medical community’s jury is still hanging outside the courtroom. To wit, the American Pharmacists Association summarizes its stance thusly: “Human data on apoaequorin are limited to small, company-sponsored trials that do not meet expected scientific standards.”
Marketing and Science: An Uneasy Partnership
The intersection of science and marketing is riddled with potholes. On one hand, dangerous products shouldn’t land on shelves, which requires a certain amount of oversight. On the other hand, mixing scientific studies with promotional materials can be a messy legal recipe. Why? Because science is not a monolith; a singular idea. Scientists don’t always agree. Which raises the question: Should judges be determining the proper way to present scientific findings?
This suit is unique because the FTC and AG aren’t questioning a study’s veracity, which is the norm in “unsubstantiated claim” cases. Instead, commissioners contend that Quincy failed to present the results adequately; (specifically, the purported near identical results for placebo and dosed participants). To put it another way, the FTC doesn’t think Quincy is providing “reliable evidence of a treatment effect.”
The FTC’s Rule About Scientific Support
You may be wondering: “Why can the FTC sue over certain scientific studies but not others?” And that’s the question Quincy wants people to ask. But is it the right question?
Quincy insists the lawsuit is subjectively rooted, and therefore meritless. In a statement the company argued:
“Quincy has amassed a large body of evidence that Prevagen improves memory and supports healthy brain function. This evidence includes preclinical rat studies, canine studies, human clinical studies, and, most importantly, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled human clinical testing. This type of testing has long been acknowledged by both the FTC and the FDA to be the ‘gold standard’ for scientific evidence.
“The FTC does not allege that Quincy’s principal clinical study fails to meet the FTC’s and FDA’s own definition of ‘gold standard,’ nor does the FTC allege that the study was poorly designed or inappropriately conducted, or that it failed to rely on scientifically-validated measures.
“The sole dispute rests on the interpretation and analysis of the data, with the regulators attempting to hold the company to a standard that is unreasonable, scientifically debatable, and legally invalid. Their experts simply disagree with ours over how to interpret the study results. The FTC should not be the arbiter in matters of scientific debate. We are proud of the work we have done to support Prevagen’s effects and believe our large body of evidence clearly satisfies the longstanding standard to support such claims.”
This squabble over semantics may prove to be the crux of the case. Quincy could win by convincingly framing the FTC’s argument as scientific interpretation, as opposed to objective oversight. But is an interpretive variance truly the problem?
Scientific method convention stands: If a control group’s results aren’t statistically different than “activated” participants’, then it’s back to the lab to form a new hypothesis. The FTC will undoubtedly argue something to this effect. But, hey, you never know; a sympathetic judge could see it Quincy’s way.
Lame-Duck FTC Means Ruling Should Be Vacated?
Quincy is also upset that only two commissioners voted on the action. In a statement, the company characterized the suit as “another example of government overreach and regulators extinguishing innovation by imposing arbitrary new rules on small businesses like ours.” Quincy also accused the agency of being “short-staffed and lame-duck.”
FTC Sued Prevagen And They’re Not Backing Down
The FTC and AG are standing firm in their decision. Jessica Rich, an agency director, chastised, “The marketers of Prevagen preyed on the fears of older consumers experiencing age-related memory loss. But one critical thing these marketers forgot is that their claims need to be backed up by real scientific evidence.”
Warning Letter Dates Back To 2012
Was the suit a shock to Quincy? Maybe not. According to reports, the Commission sent the company a warning letter in 2012. Which just goes to show: Don’t assume you’re in the clear if nothing ever came of that FTC caution from years ago.
The FTC Keeps A Close Eye On Dietary Supplement Marketers
The FTC’s Prevagen censure comes as little surprise. Not only are the ads ubiquitous (in certain regions), but they appeal to senior citizens. The AG remonstrated, “It’s particularly unacceptable that this company has targeted vulnerable citizens like seniors in its advertising for a product that costs more than a week’s groceries, but provides none of the health benefits that it claims.”
Yes, The FTC Wins Dietary Supplement Lawsuits – A Lot
This post isn’t a case-merit analysis. It’s still early stages; both sides have reasonable arguments; the devil will be in the litigatory details.
However, as attorneys who work with dietary supplement marketers and keep up-to-date on industry happenings, we wanted to point out a small curiosity in Quincy’s statement. It reads:
“The FTC has already brought three similar cases against three other companies in which the Commission tried to impose its own rigid interpretation of a company’s scientific evidence to prohibit truthful, non-misleading claims. In each case, the FTC lost.”
How did you interpret that statement? Did you walk away thinking the FTC lost every deceptive marketing case involving a nootropic? Not the case. For example, in 2015, the Commission went head-to-head with the folks behind Procera AVH, a product promising to “restore memory loss and improve brain function.” Originally, the court slapped a $150 million judgment on the supplement distributors, but the FTC agreed to a final payout of $1.4 million to satisfy the censure.
We point this out not to question Quincy, but to warn dietary supplement marketers: The FTC does prevail…often. Don’t be complacent when it comes to advertising compliance.
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