Centrum Multivitamin Lawsuit Over False Health Benefits Avoided

Pfizer, Inc. has agreed to remove some of the health claims used to promote its Centrum brand of multivitamins, after a consumer watchdog group threatened to file a lawsuit accusing the company of false advertising.

In April, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) sent a letter (PDF) to Pfizer Chief Executive Ian Read, alleging that separate Centrum multivitamin products carried deceptive claims on their labels – that they support “energy and immunity,” “heart health”, “eye health,” “breast health, “bone health” and “colon health.”

The letter indicated that the company was implying, or in some cases directly stating, that Centrum’s health benefits have been scientifically established. However, most of these claims were derived from studies that did not pertain to the health claims Pfizer attributed to Centrum.

In one example highlighting deceptive claims of Centrum’s “heart health”, a Pfizer commercial states, “Centrum Cardio is the only complete multivitamin with CoroWise phytosterols, an ingredient derived from soybeans that may reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol.” However, CSPI claims that there is no little to any evidence as to the effects of phytosterols in hard, dry pills.

Existing research on the effectiveness of phytosterols has involved foods like margarine or yogurt, which help disperse phytosterols in the GI tract to do their work.   In fact, Pfizer has failed to produce any convincing evidence as to their effects in response to previous requests from CSPI, leading the the group to claim that the claims are unlawful because it lacks prior substantiation and is deceptive.

In response, attorneys for Pfizer sent a letter (PDF) on July 5, memorializing their agreement to drop certain “breast health” and “colon health” claims from the labels of the widely used Centrum multivitamin supplements within the next six months. They will also be removed from websites within the next 30 days. In exchange, CSPI has agreed to withdraw the April notice of intention to file lawsuit over the Centrum marketing practices.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has challenged the advertising practices of major manufacturers in the past, forcing changes in misleading claims associated with other multivitamins.

In 2009, CSPI filed a lawsuit against Bayer over their One-A-Day Men’s Multivitamins, alleging that the product contained false and misleading claims that the multivitamin may help prevent prostate cancer.

Bayer promoted the multivitamins in a “Strike Out Prostate Cancer” campaign partnered with Major League Baseball and mentioned on labels that “emerging science” suggested that selenium in One-A-Day Mens multivitamin helped prevent prostate cancer; a claim some experts dispute.

After the allegations were brought to light by the group, Bayer agreed to alter future marketing claims and ultimately reached a $3.3 million settlement with several states that also sued the company, including an agreement that any future claims of health benefits will be backed by sound science.

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