Companies tout health products for profits in wake of flu outbreak

With concerns swirling that swine flu could potentially reach pandemic level status, some companies and online sites are seizing on the opportunity to translate public fears into quick bucks.

With concerns swirling that swine flu could potentially reach pandemic level status, some companies and online sites are seizing on the opportunity to translate public fears into quick bucks.

A flurry of news releases and websites have popped up in the wake of the swine H1N1 influenza virus outbreak touting the virtues of certain products as preventative — and in some cases curative — tools in fighting swine flu. At present, there is no vaccine against the new flu strain.

One company sells colourful “flu fashion respirator masks” billed as medical grade and designed to filter out viral pathogens and protect the individual’s respiratory system in a pandemic environment.

Another touts a hand sanitizer lotion that has shown to be effective in killing the H1N1 swine flu virus, and stays on the skin and continues to kill germs after handwashing.

One website, Swine Flu Cure, is offering a “cure-all medicine” for $19.99 per dose. Another site is selling a “complete flu detox” for US$99 which says that while it is not a vaccine, it can prevent swine flu if individuals have been exposed.

While it’s one thing to take advantage of the fact that people suddenly care about your product, that’s very different than using it as an opportunity to prey on individuals who are afraid or worried, said Kyle Murray, director of the school of retailing at the University of Alberta.

“I think you have to be careful that your product is actually a product that’s relevant and you’re not just trying to squeeze yourself into the headlines,” said Murray, who is also an associate professor of marketing.

“If what you’re doing is just taking some time to talk to people about your product or service and you’re not misleading them or doing anything that’s clearly unethical …. that’s not likely to create any sort of backlash.”

Murray said the emergence or positioning of certain products or services is to be expected in the face of a big event that makes headlines, like the flu outbreak or the recession.

Yet while there are some products that benefit in terms of awareness and attention as a result of such major stories, Murray said most of the time the impact is fairly short-term.

If anything, it usually just raises the level of attention that people pay to them.The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission issued an alert to the public warning them to be wary of websites and other promotions for products that claim to diagnose, prevent, mitigate, treat or cure the swine subtype of H1N1. http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/2009/NEW02007.html.

Consumers are also being asked to report suspected fraudulent products or criminal activity relating to FDA-regulated products associated with the H1N1 strain.

Health Canada was not immediately available for comment.

Canadian and U.S. officials are also cautioning the public to beware of potential scams that could be lurking in cyberspace.

Joris Evers, a McAfee security specialist, said prior to last weekend, there was no mention of swine flu in any spam. Swine flu-related messages now account for as much as five per cent of all spam being sent out. On average, total overall spam can span between 80 and 100 billion messages daily.

Domain name registrations using the words “swine” and “flu” have also ticked up significantly, he said.

A spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau of Southern Colorado said scams include a website offering a “Swine Flu Survival Guide” for US$19.95 and emails with subject lines like “Madonna caught swine flu!” linking to online pharmacies.

Douglas Simpson, president and CEO of the Canadian Council of Better Business Bureaus, said while they haven’t yet fielded calls or complaints about swine flu-related scams, that could change as the situation continues to unfold.

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