Of all the social media legal issues I’ve covered, this one hits the closest to home. I first learned about it from my wife, who sells doTERRA brand essential oils and who enjoys pinning information about them to her Pinterest boards. So imagine her unpleasant surprise when she logged in one recent day to discover that many of her favorite oil pins were gone, without explanation.
It turns out she wasn’t the only one to suffer this oilpacalypse. Just this month,the Federal Drug Administration issued warning letters to doTERRA and the other largest distributor of essentials oils in the United Sates, Young Living. These letters informed the companies that the FDA had reviewed their websites and social media accounts (including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube), determined that several of the companies’ oils were being promoted as “drugs” in ways that fall under the FDA’s jurisdiction. Because the FDA has not reviewed or approved any applications of these products, and many of the reviewed ads made health claims that were not FDA-approved, the letters asserted that these ads violated the laws that FDA is charged with enforcing. The letters directed the companies to tell the FDA within 15 days what they had done to comply with the letters. Apparently, they chose to remove some or all of the challenged pins and posts.
Now, this is hardly the first time that the FDA has gone after “natural” remedy providers. “They have a history of issuing warning letters against the producers and marketers of such things as walnuts, cranberries, elderberry juice, coconut oil, and many more. The FDA requires that companies selling natural products and making health claims get their permission first, by going through a lengthy and costly drug approval process,” notes one source.
And several of the posts called out in the letter were truly asinine claims made, not by the oil companies themselves, but rather some of their independent distributors–such as how a particular combination of oils can “cure Ebola.” There seems to be widespread suspicion that it was just such wild claims that provoked the FDA to throw this brushback pitch now, although the demands they made (and the apparent response) were significantly broader and included statements that were not nearly as controversial. I’ve certainly heard plenty about how the “Ebola cure” loons give the whole industry a bad name.
Indeed, what makes the essential oil phenomenon different from many prior distributors of homeopathic remedies is that these companies rely on a network of consultants who sell the products to their friends and families around the kitchen table. These individuals are going to be more apt to rely on social media than corporate interests might. The companies call them independent consultants, but the FDA held the companies to task for their distributors’ content. This is likely a sign of even more scrutiny being given to social advertising going forward
In the meantime, I need to wake up and get started with my day. A couple sniffs of peppermint oil ought to do the trick.