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Special Communication
September 17, 2003

Internet Marketing of Herbal Products

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass.

JAMA. 2003;290(11):1505-1509. doi:10.1001/jama.290.11.1505

Context Passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994 restricted the Food and Drug Administration's control over dietary supplements, leading to enormous growth in their promotion. The Internet is often used by consumers as a source of information on such therapies.

Objective To assess the information presented and indications claimed on the Internet for the 8 best-selling herbal products.

Data Sources We searched the Internet using the 5 most commonly used search engines. For each, we entered the names of the 8 most widely used herbal supplements (ginkgo biloba, St John's wort, echinacea, ginseng, garlic, saw palmetto, kava kava, and valerian root). We analyzed the health content of all Web sites listed on the first page of the search results.

Study Selection We analyzed all accessible, English-language Web sites that pertained to oral herbal supplements. A total of 522 Web sites were identified; of these, 443 sites met inclusion criteria for the analysis.

Data Extraction The nature of the Web site (retail or nonretail), whether it was a sponsored link, and all references, indications, claims, and disclaimers were recorded. Two reviewers independently categorized medical claims as disease or nondisease according to Food and Drug Administration criteria.

Data Synthesis Among 443 Web sites, 338 (76%) were retail sites either selling product or directly linked to a vendor. A total of 273 (81%) of the 338 retail Web sites made 1 or more health claims; of these, 149 (55%) claimed to treat, prevent, diagnose, or cure specific diseases. More than half (153/292; 52%) of sites with a health claim omitted the standard federal disclaimer. Nonretail sites were more likely than retail sites to include literature references, although only 52 (12%) of the 443 Web sites provided referenced information without a link to a distributor or vendor.

Conclusions Consumers may be misled by vendors' claims that herbal products can treat, prevent, diagnose, or cure specific diseases, despite regulations prohibiting such statements. Physicians should be aware of this widespread and easily accessible information. More effective regulation is required to put this class of therapeutics on the same evidence-based footing as other medicinal products.

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