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Deceptive Health Websites Are All Too Plentiful

By Lisa Neal Gualtieri. (Her earlier much-commented post on this subject is here.)

The Boston Globe reported this month on the sentencing of a former US Airways Express pilot, Stephen Sharp, “for selling a powdered drink mix over the Internet that he claimed was ‘100 percent’ effective in helping drug-using truck drivers, pilots, and train engineers pass federally mandated drug tests.” The ungrammatically-named “” no longer seems to exist.

Mindful of ongoing debate by Gilles Frydman and others about indicators of health website credibility, I searched for other sites selling similar products (there is no shortage) and looked on sites like Craigslist where people post questions about how to pass drug tests and how to detoxify. Based on a quick perusal, I found answers ranging from product advice that I suspect is similar to what “” sold to more than I ever want to know about urine temperature to what seemed like common sense advice.

Equally fascinating, in my searches I found where stephensharp “set the record straight”, ironically, under a picture of a smiling pilot selling Dr. Schulze’s Detox Food. stephensharp explains all, from the name (“No one would type in ‘Your’RE or Youre in the clear’, I tested it”) to the product’s purpose (it “was nothing more than a diuretic to help flush your body”) to the promotional text (“it did mention unfair drug testing and various drug cutoff limits”).

The explanation went on to talk about the random drug testing in the airline world and how in 2003 he started Wholesale Organic Herbs – Gourmet Spices For Top Chefs and Organic Herbs And Cooking Spices. The websites look like they haven’t been updated since 2003. They also have a social media presence that promotes their products and include “Fun Facts”, such as “in 2005, the U.S. produced 42 percent of the world’s corn”. I tried out some of their fun facts on my 11 year old, who often emails me from a random facts app and loves Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and she didn’t think any of their fun facts were the slightest bit interesting.

Poor website design isn’t a crime, nor is poor social media use. So, what happened? According to stephensharp, in 2008 some of the other “online stores were raided as a result of operation True Test overseen by PA district attorney Mary Beth Buchanan… With much criticism in the press towards Buchanan as far as being overzealous and abusing her power I simply have no comment to make. I am not here for a finger pointing war. You can google her and make your own judgements. She faced termination in late 2009 and stepped down from office.” He went on to say that he didn’t think he “was selling anything illegal as still today there are hundreds of web sites selling detox products.” stephensharp concluded, “I am also on unpaid leave now with a future meeting planned and my future uncertain.”

Well, the next nine months, the length of Stephen Sharp’s sentence, are certain. His request for probation was rejected, and his attempt to express regret for the impact on his family was silenced. One only hopes that the ultimate impact of this is that other people with similar types of sites close them down before being caught. One also hopes that the reporting of Stephen Sharp’s sentencing raises awareness of the need for consumer vigilance.

*This blog post was originally published at*

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