On November 1, 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued warning letters to four companies that were illegally marketing and selling products online that the companies misrepresented as having benefits in the prevention or treatment of cancer.

The companies – Greenroads Health, Natural Alchemist, That’s Natural! Marketing and Consulting, and Stanley Brothers Social Enterprises LLC – were all cited for unsubstantiated claims related to more than 25 different cannabidiol (CBD)-containing products. CBD is a component of the marijuana plant that is not FDA approved in any drug product for any indication. CBD is marketed in a variety of product types, such as oil drops, capsules, syrups, teas, and topical lotions and creams. The companies receiving warning letters distributed the products with unsubstantiated claims regarding preventing, reversing or curing cancer; killing/inhibiting cancer cells or tumors; or other similar anti-cancer claims. Some of the products were also marketed as an alternative or additional treatment for Alzheimer’s and other serious diseases. The products were offered on multiple product webpages, online stores, and social media websites. 

Some of the claims included:

“Combats tumor and cancer cells;”

“CBD makes cancer cells commit ‘suicide’ without killing other cells;”

“CBD … [has] anti-proliferative properties that inhibit cell division and growth in certain types of cancer, not allowing the tumor to grow;” and

“Non-psychoactive cannabinoids like CBD (cannabidiol) may be effective in treating tumors from cancer – including breast cancer.” 

As part of its mandate to protect consumers from health fraud, the FDA has cited increasing concerns over the proliferation of products claiming to treat or cure serious diseases like cancer. As noted in the FDA’s press release, “Selling unapproved products with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims is not only a violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, but also can put patients at risk as these products have not been proven to be safe or effective. The deceptive marketing of unproven treatments may keep some patients from accessing appropriate, recognized therapies to treat serious and even fatal diseases.”

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. was even more direct, stating, “Substances that contain components of marijuana will be treated like any other products that make unproven claims to shrink cancer tumors. We don’t let companies market products that deliberately prey on sick people with baseless claims that their substance can shrink or cure cancer and we’re not going to look the other way on enforcing these principles when it comes to marijuana-containing products. There are a growing number of effective therapies for many cancers. When people are allowed to illegally market agents that deliver no established benefit they may steer patients away from products that have proven, anti-tumor effects that could extend lives.”

The FDA has requested responses from the companies receiving warning letters stating how the violations will be corrected. Failure to correct the violations promptly may result in legal action, including product seizure and injunction.

“We have an obligation to provide caregivers and patients with the confidence that drugs making cancer treatment claims have been carefully evaluated for safety, efficacy, and quality, and are monitored by the FDA once they’re on the market,” Commissioner Gottlieb added. “We recognize that there’s interest in developing therapies from marijuana and its components, but the safest way for this to occur is through the drug approval process – not through unsubstantiated claims made on a website. We support sound, scientifically-based research using components derived from marijuana, and we’ll continue to work with product developers who are interested in bringing safe, effective, and quality products to market.”