Friday, June 03, 2005

Hinky marketing of immune boosters

As you may realize from all the references to the Texas AIDS Health Fraud Information Network, Texas AIDS Network is concerned about the fraudulent marketing of useless products to a vulnerable population. As long as treatment for HIV is so expensive and access to that treatment is so limited, there will always be a market for this false hope.

Periodically, I do a test of the Network's website listing in various search engines. I enter assorted key words that I hope that we are associated with and then click "Go" to see whether we show up and how high we rank.

A recent test of our listing for the Yahoo search engine brought some interesting results.

The key words that I used were: Texas, HIV, medications. The Network ranked second after the Texas HIV Medication Program. Pretty good, I'm thinking. But, ever curious, I looked on down the page to see what else might be there. I was surprised to see another site that directly quoted from our website. I had to check it out.

This new page looked like a list of helpful links for HIV medications and just included a link to Texas AIDS Network with a site description lifted from our Access section. This could be a good thing. Links from other sites help bring traffic to the Network's site. The more links, the better our ranking in search engines.

On the other hand, the address for this page included an apparent product name. When that happens, I pretty much go on red alert. It didn't make my alarm bells quit ringing when I saw that the ad at the top of the page was for an immune system product which was also headed as: "Our Top hiv medications Resource." (The punctuation alone was enough to set my teeth on edge, but that's another story.)

Still, I gamely clicked "here" as directed. "Here" was a cornucopia of red flags for anyone who looks out for health fraud, not the least of which was the claim that a dietary supplement is "effective in the fight against" a whole host of diseases including HIV and just about everything but zits.

That was enough to lead me to try to track down the company--which turns out to be located somewhere in the U.S.--and make a report of a questionable product to TAHFIN. (The federal representatives on the task force handle non-Texas reports; the state representatives handle Texas for us. It takes international treaties to do anything about websites that market from other countries. It's possible, but harder.)

None of this is to say that this product is not a totally wonderful thing nor to say that anyone who takes it may not suddenly find themselves able to leap tall buildings. It is to say that making claims to "help in the fight against HIV/AIDS" needs to be backed up by some credible scientific research, which I didn't find. It is also to say that this kind of marketing, which implies endorsement by legitimate organizations, is pretty hinky. (Yes, I learned that word from watching NCIS.)

If you are concerned about a product that you find marketed on the Internet, you, too, can contact TAHFIN to find out whether the product is legitimate. What you will likely be told is only whether the manufacturer is in compliance with the law, but that is a good first step in determining legitimacy. Effectiveness is a whole 'nother question (that's what the scientific research is supposed to be for).

UPDATE: Hmmm. Anybody can sue about anything these days. I removed the product references just to make this a more generic statement, which it is intended to be anyway. I hope that didn't make it vaguer at the same time it made it more generic. [sigh]

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