In a recent blog, I shared an article about Amazon banning fake supplements. It appears that Amazon cared mostly about what I would call surface-fake (e.g. counterfeit products, an unnamed company creates packaging to look like GNC or another brand name). Amazon did not care about what I would call deep-fake (e.g. unregulated products that do not contain active ingredients OR misleading products that have never been proven to have the health benefits they claim). 

Thinking about the threats of fakes to Amazon and its customers got me curious about what standards the world’s largest retailer had when it came to medical and health-related products. I started broadly to see how Amazon handled its liability and responsibility to its customers. Not surprisingly, Amazon has multiple policies regarding what can and can’t be sold through Amazon.  

Some of its policies are simply a matter of following local and international laws, such as the ban of the sale of weapons and body parts. Others are based on ethical principles, such as the ban of offensive (e.g. Washington Redskins merchandise) or controversial (e.g. cotton sourced in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, often made with slave labor) products. My favorite bans are those that seem to state the obvious but must have arisen from negative customer experiences (e.g. no Kindle Coloring books).

There are also instances where a very specific person or product is named in the ban. For example, “Your Baby Can Read” products.

The “Your Baby Can Read” products were a creation of Dr. Robert Titzer, a self-proclaimed expert in infant learning, and were banned by the Federal Trade Commission. Contrary to Dr. Titzer’s claims, it turns out that infants can’t read, aren’t good at memorization cards, and generally fail to read Harry Potter books by age three. As with most BS, there were also dangers to these products, as The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood called out, such as prolonged and premature screen time. What I find encouraging here is that Amazon can and will ban BS if there is sufficient pressure.

So what part of Amazon’s policies on supplements are relevant to you?

First, to protect yourself, you should know that “Supplement labels must not state that the products cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent a disease in humans, unless that statement is approved by the FDA” and that “detail pages must not include disease names in the key words.” I did some looking around and it appears that supplement companies are following this rule. Although books sold on Amazon may make specific claims for supplements (more on this in a future blog), the supplement descriptions do not. Rather, they are filled with meaningless jargon (e.g. boosts immune system, healthy aging, detoxifies, enhances cell repair) that carefully avoid any specific claims. What this means for you is that if you are reading the description of a supplement and don’t see mention of the specific health benefits you were hoping for (e.g. fights cancer, prevents Alzheimer’s), assume that there is NO evidence supporting those benefits. (Be warned however, that if you put in the name of an illness and “supplements,” you will get many results, a seeming violation by Amazon of its own policy).

Second, as part of the anti-BS community, there are several rules (including the FDA rule above) that you should call out if and when you see them violated, such as:

  • Supplements must be correctly described and labeled 
  • Include a “Supplement Facts” panel (note the quotes)
  • Supplement labels must not claim that the products have the same effects as controlled substances or prescription drugs and cannot have names that could be confused with controlled substances or prescriptions drugs, like “Viagrex” or “TestosterX”
  • Supplements must be safe for use and must not be a product that the FDA has determined presents an unreasonable risk of injury or illness

We will cover written materials and medical devices in an upcoming blog. Until then, please use your voice, your ratings, your choices to spread stories, and your buying power to combat BS.