FDA Orders Dr. Joseph Mercola
to Stop Illegal Claims

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Joseph Mercola, D.O., who practices in Schaumburg, Illinois, also operates one of the Internet's largest and most trafficked health information sites. In 2012, Mercola stated that his site had over 300,000 pages and is visited by "millions of people each day" and that his electronic newsletter has close 1,500,000 subscribers [1]. The site vigorously promotes and sells dietary supplements, many of which bear his name.

In 2004, Medical Economics reported that Mercola's practice employed 50 people and that he employed 15 people to run his newsletter, including three editors [2]. Much of his support has comefrom chiropractors who promote his newsletter from their Web sites. Two of his books hit the #2 sales rank on Amazon Books shortly after his newsletter plugged them for the first time.

For many years, Dr. Mercola and other staff members saw patients at his clinic, which was called the Optimal Wellness Center. However, in 2006, an article in Chicago Magazine reported that Mercola had stopped practicing medicine to focus on his Web site [3]. I did not see any mention of this on his Web site, and the site invited patients to come to his clinic—which was renamed Dr. Mercola's Natural Health Center—for detoxification, chiropractic, Dispensary, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), Functional Medicine Program, homeopathy, Neuro-Structural Integration Technique (NST), nutritional consultation, Nutritional Typing Test, thermography, Total Body Modification (TBM), and Active Isolated Stretching. In September 2014, the site announced that he had closed the clinic "in order to devote his full time and attention to research, education and increasing public awareness." [4]

Many of Mercola's articles make unsubstantiated claims and clash with those of leading medical and public health organizations. For example, he opposes immunization [5] fluoridation [6], mammography [7], and the routine administration of vitamin K shots to the newborn [8,9]; claims that amalgam fillings are toxic [10]; and makes many unsubstantiated recommendations for dietary supplements. Mercola's reach has been greatly boosted by repeated promotion on the "Dr. Oz Show."

Mercola's Profits

Mercola is very critical of drug company profits and proudly states:

Mercola.com does NOT accept any third-party advertising or sponsorship, and I am in no way tied into any pharmaceutical company or any other corporate "interest" whatsoever. So you get the real inside scoop on health issues, with practical advice that matters to you untainted by outside influence! [1]

He also states:

Mercola.com is not . . . a tool to get me a bigger house and car, or to run for Senate. I fund this site, and therefore, am not handcuffed to any advertisers, silent partners or corporate parents. . . .

Profit generated from the sale of the products I recommend goes right back into maintaining and building a better site. A site that, startling as it may be with all the greed-motivated hype out there in health care land, is truly for you [11].

I don't doubt Mercola's sincerity—and I know nothing about how he allocates his income. But I recently made some interesting observations. The word "Mercola" on the labels of his "Dr. Mercola Premium Supplements" is service-marked. Records at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office say that he began using the mark in commerce in 2000, applied to register it in 2009, and was granted registration in 2010. The registration address is for his home in South Barrington, Illinois, which the BlockShopper Chicago Web site states has 5,083 square feet and was purchased by Mercola in 2006 for $2 million. The Bing Maps aerial view indicates that it is quite luxurious.  

In 2011, Mercola announced the formation of Health Liberty, a nonprofit coalition whose goals include promoting organic foods and targeting fluoridation, vaccination, genetically modified foods, and the use of amalgam fillings [12]. In a video accompanying the announcement, Mercola stated that he planned to donate $1 million to catalyze the project. In addition to Mercola.com, The coalition members are:

The "health freedom" argument involves deception by misdirection. It focuses on individual freedom but does not consider how people who fail to protect their health put the rest of society at physical and/or financial risk. Failing to vaccinate, for example, decreases herd immunity so that contagious diseases spread more widely. In 2012, Mercola becan calling his newsletter "Health Liberty Newsletter."

In 2013, Williamette Week reported that Mercola had donated a total of $26,975 in cash and in-kind contributions that included polling and a YouTube video to support the efforts of the antifluoridation group that is opposing a fluoridation referendum in Portland, Oregon. The report also stated that "Mercola has questioned whether HIV causes AIDS, suggests that many cancers can be cured by baking soda, and warns parents not to vaccinate their children. He also says that animals are psychic." [13]

Better Business Bureau Report

Mercola markets his supplements through Mercola Health Resources, LLC. In 2011, after a customer complained that she thought a product she purchased was overpriced, I began checking whether the Better Business Bureau had received any complaints. I found that the company was rated C- on a scale of A+ through F. On February 1, 2012, the BBB reported that during the previous 36 months, there were 26 complaints—which is not an unusually high number for a high-volume business—but the report contained the following comments:

A recent review of consumer complaints filed with the BBB of Chicago & Northern Illinois against your Mercola Health Resources, LLC delineates a pattern of consumer allegations. Consumers are alleging that Mercola Health Resources does not honor the 100% money-back guarantee listed on your website. Customers have reported that refunds have not been provided for returns that were specifically covered under this guarantee. Consumers have also reported that they have experienced delivery issues. While www.mercola.com states that orders ship within 10 business days, consumers say they have waited much longer for their products. Customers allege that the company's service staff has been unable to provide explanations regarding this delay. Some consumers have also reported that Mercola provided them with shipment tracking numbers that were not valid with their respective carriers [14].

On November 26, 2013, I checked again and found that during the previous 36 months there had been 34 complaints, complaints but the Mercola Health Resouces was rated A+.

FDA Warnings

In 2005, the FDA ordered Mercola and his Optimal Wellness Center to stop making illegal claims for products sold through his Web site [15]. The claims to which the FDA objected involved three products:

In 2006, the FDA sent Mercola and his center a second warning that was based on product labels collected during an inspection at his facility and on claims made on the Optimum Wellness Center Web site [16]. This time the claims to which the FDA objected involve four products:

The warning letters explained that the use of such claims in the marketing of these products violates the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, which bans unapproved claims for products that are intended for curing, mitigating, treating, or preventing of diseases. (Intended use can be established through product labels, catalogs, brochures, tapes, Web sites, or other circumstances surrounding the distribution of the product.)

In 2011, the FDA ordered Mercola to stop making claims for thermography that go beyond what the equipment he uses (Medtherm2000 infrared camera) was cleared for. The warning letter said that statements on Mercola's site improperly imply that the Meditherm camera can be used alone to diagnose or screen for various diseases or conditions associated with the breast, they also represent that the sensitivity of the Meditherm Med2000 Telethermographic camera is greater than that of machines used in mammography. The statements to which the FDA objected included:

In 2011, the Chicago Tribune reported that Mercola had not complied with the FDA's order and intended to "fight the FDA . . . if they decide to take it further." [18] In 2012, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation asked Mercola to attend an informal conference to discuss a complaint that he was "making deceptive claims promoting thermography as a standalone diagnostic tool for detecting cancer and other diseases and is attacking the use of mammograms." Mercola's Web site still promotes thermography and trashes mammography, but the site stopped offering mammography appintments later that year and Mercola's special report, "The Safe Breast Cancer Screening Test Your Doctor Isn’t Telling You About," is no longer apparent.

For Additional Information

References

  1. Mercola JM. Health website rankings: Mercola.com is now world's most visited natural health site. Mercola.com, accessed Feb 1, 2012.
  2. Joseph Mercola: The physician as entrepreneur. Medical Economics, August 20, 2004, p 37.
  3. Smith B. Dr. Mercola: Visionary or quack? Chicago Magazine, Feb 12, 2012.
  4. Buttram H. Vaccine safety and benefits not scientifically proven. Optimal Wellness Center Web site, Jan 15, 2003.
  5. Dr. Mercola's Natural Health Center home page, accessed Sept 2, 2014.
  6. Mercola JM. Is fluoride as safe as you are told. Optimal Wellness Center Web site, Feb 2, 6, and 9, 2002.
  7. Mercola JM. Mammograms don't save lives. Mercola.com Web site, Oct 1, 2000.
  8. Mercola JM. The dark side of the routine newborn vitamin K shot. Mercola.com, March 27, 2010.
  9. Jones C. Separating fact from fiction in the not-so-normal newborn nursery: Vitamin K shots….. Science-Based Medicine, Dec 6, 2013.
  10. Mercola JM. The experts get it wrong about mercury again! Optimal Wellness Center Web site, Dec 9, 2004.
  11. Mercola JM. Why trust me? Mercola.com Web site, March 19, 2011.
  12. Mercola JM. New plan to help you take back your health freedoms. Mercola.com, Oct 3, 2011.
  13. Mesh A. Dr. Joseph Mercola gives $15,000 to anti-flouride campaign. Williamette Week, May 6, 2013.
  14. BBB reliability report for Mercola Health Resources LLC. Better Business Bureau, Feb 1, 2012.
  15. Walker SJ. Warning letter to Joseph Mercola, D.O., Feb 16, 2005.
  16. MacIntire SJ. Warning letter to Joseph Mercola, D.O., September 21, 2006.
  17. Silverman S. Warning letter to Dr. Joseph Mercola, March 22, 2011.
  18. Tsouderos T. FDA warns doctor: Stop touting camera as disease screening tool. Chicago Tribune, April 26, 2011.

This article was revised on September 2, 2014.