FTC Judge Slams Pom Pomegranate Ads

     WASHINGTON (CN) - Pom Wonderful makes deceptive advertising claims about the health benefits of drinking its pomegranate juice, a Federal Trade Commission judge ruled.
     The ruling comes just a week after the 9th Circuit tossed Pom Wonderful's own false advertising allegations against Coca-Cola's pomegranate-blueberry drink.
     Unlike the Coca-Cola drink, Pom Wonderful is 100 percent pomegranate juice. But without competent and reasonable scientific evidence, the FTC said Pom can no longer claim that its juice or PomX dietary supplements treat, prevent, or reduce the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction.
     In a September 2010 complaint, the FTC claimed that Pom Wonderful and its sister company, Roll Global, claimed that "clinical studies, research and or/trials prove" that consuming their products had the touted health benefits, when no such evidence exists.
     At the time Pom charged that the FTC adopted unfair advertising standards that contradicted well-established advertising rules.
     Administrate Law Judge D. Michael Chappell's hearing of the FTC complaint stretched from May 24 to Nov. 4, 2011, and included more than 2,000 exhibits, including testimony from diet and heart health expert Dr. Dean Ornish.
     Most of Chappell's 330-page decision examined the scientific evidence on which Pom claims to have relied when making the disputed health claims, as well as the proper standard for making such claims.
     Pom argued that it had to rely only on competent and reliable scientific evidence because it never claimed consuming its products could substitute for drugs or other therapy to treat disease.
     The Delaware company, which is headquartered in Los Angeles, has sponsored at least 100 studies on the health effects of pomegranate in the last decade and invested more than $35 million in such research.
     Judge Chappell focused on Pom advertisements that claimed drinking 8 ounces of its juice a day, or taking one of its supplements, would treat, prevent, or reduce the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction.
     He found such claims would lead reasonable consumers to conclude that drinking Pom's juice or taking its supplements would treat, prevent, or reduce serious health problems, and that it was clinically proven to do so.
     While Chappell agreed with Pom as to the standard that should apply to specific disease claims, he said Pom did not rely on evidence that met the standard.
     The studies Pom sponsored did show a general health benefit to consuming pomegranate, but "the weight of the persuasive expert testimony demonstrates that there was insufficient competent and reliable scientific evidence to support" POM's specific claims, Chappell said.
     Regulators had argued that POM needs approval from the Food and Drug Administration to making such claims in the future. The FDA approval process is arduous and requires double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials.
     Chappell found that FDA approval "would constitute unnecessary overreaching," and that the "competent and reliable scientific evidence" standard was thorough enough.
     The order accompanying Chappell's ruling will prevent Pom from making any specific effectiveness claims that is products could decrease arterial plaque; lower blood pressure; reduce the risk of heart disease; or prevent, treat, or reduce the risk of prostate cancer or erectile dysfunction - unless the claim relies on reliable scientific evidence.
     Chappell's ruling, called an initial decision, becomes the decision of the FTC commissioners 30 days after it is issued, unless the commissioners vote to review it, or are asked to do so by either party.
     Courthouse News has reported on 18 class action lawsuits against Pom Wonderful for deceptive advertising, as well as one suit to determine whether Lloyd's of London must cover the company's costs to defend such suits.