For example, POM Wonderful advertisements imply that the juice protects against prostate cancer. Could this be true? POM Wonderful cited a study with some evidence that "PSA doubling time" -- a measure of prostate cancer's progress -- is slowed by drinking POM Wonderful. Yet, truthfulness requires more than selective quotation from a favorable study. In the FTC hearing, the balance of scientific evidence failed to support POM Wonderful's implied prostate cancer claim.
POM Wonderful argued that some of its claims were merely puffery, not intended actually to convince grown-up consumers that the juice protects against cancer. Yet, truthfulness does not permit the kindergarten defense: "Okay, I implied it, but I didn't really say it, so it's not a lie."
The administrative judge is correct to tar the claims as false and misleading.
What is the policy implication? Some reasonable people would say the FTC should crack down on misleading health claims. Other reasonable people would say "buyer beware," while maintaining that regulation will do little good. In either case, let us all acknowledge that the claims are false and misleading. There can be no defense of the claims themselves.
Or, so I thought.
POM Wonderful's response to the ruling this week has a breathtaking audacity. I see today on the NYT website, POM Wonderful advertisements boasting of the FTC judge's ruling. For the prostate issue above, here is the key quote in the POM Wonderful ad today:
How is this possible? Did the judge really endorse the very cancer-protective claim that POM Wonderful had implied? Here is the full passage from page 282 of the judgment, with the sentences not quoted by POM Wonderful underlined.“Competent and reliable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that the consumption of pomegranate juice and pomegranate extract supports prostate health, including by prolonging PSA doubling time in men with rising PSA after primary treatment for prostate cancer.”– Judge Chappell, Chief Administrative Law Judge, FTCIn the Matter of POM Wonderful LLC, Initial Decision (5/17/2012), page 282
Competent and reliable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that the consumption of pomegranate juice and pomegranate extract supports prostate health, including by prolonging PSA doubling time in men with rising PSA after primary treatment for prostate cancer. However, the greater weight of the persuasive expert testimony shows that the evidence relied upon by Respondents is not adequate to substantiate claims that the POM Products treat, prevent, or reduce the risk of prostate cancer or that they are clinically proven to do so. Indeed, the authors of the Pantuck Study and the Carducci Study each testified that their study did not conclude that POM Juice treats, prevents, or reduces the risk of prostate cancer.Let anybody who was tempted to criticize the FTC or defend POM Wonderful read these two passages and evaluate for themselves the company's standard of honesty.
In my view, POM Wonderful is truly a bold titan of the dubious claims industry.
Update (1:45 pm): I just noticed that Marion Nestle also covered the NYT ads. Soon perhaps POM Wonderful will quote Marion's sentence: "Fruit juices are healthy and especially delicious when fresh." Of course, Marion goes on to say she doubts the cancer claims too.