In a lawsuit announced Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (Commission) have alleged violations of a new law that prohibits deceptive acts or practices related to the cure, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment or prevention of COVID-19.
DOJ filed the complaint on behalf of the Commission in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri against advertisers of vitamin D and zinc nutritional supplements.
St. Louis, Missouri-based Quickwork LLC and its owner, Eric Anthony Nepute, claimed without “competent and reliable scientific evidence” that their products could prevent or treat COVID-19, according to the government agencies. The vitamin D and zinc products were marketed under the brand name “Wellness Warrior.”
“Further, the defendants allegedly advertised without scientific support that their supplements were equally or more effective therapies for COVID-19 than the currently available vaccines,” DOJ stated in a news release.
The federal government is seeking civil penalties and injunctive relief to stop the defendants from continuing to make the allegedly deceptive advertising claims.
The lawsuit is the first enforcement action alleging violations of the COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act, which Congress passed in December, DOJ disclosed. The complaint further alleges violations of the FTC Act, the statute under which the Commission investigates unfair or deceptive acts or practices affecting commerce.
“The defendants’ claims that their products can stand in for approved COVID-19 vaccines are particularly troubling: we need to be doing everything we can to stop bogus health claims that endanger consumers,” Acting FTC Chairwoman Rebecca Kelly Slaughter said in a statement. “With this case, the Commission has quickly put to use its new authority to stop false marketing claims related to the pandemic.”
Slaughter’s agency in May 2020 sent a warning letter to Nepute—a chiropractor—over advertising claims on social media.
“You don’t need to be sitting at home right now scared that you’re going to die from some virus,” the letter quoted Nepute as stating in a Facebook Live video. “You know what you need to do? Get yourself adjusted. Get yourself your vitamins.”
The same video recommended getting vitamin C intravenously.
“(It) bypasses the GI tract,” the post said. “Goes right into your bloodstream. You have no digestive problems with that. And we can give you up to 60 grams of vitamin C in one of our pushes. That is the key to keeping your immune system charged and boosted. You guys, I get one every week.”
The warning letter advised Nepute to immediately stop making claims to cure, treat or prevent COVID-19. Yet Nepute and his company “continue to market vitamin and mineral products—specifically WW Vita D and WW Zinc—as proven immunity boosters that will treat or prevent COVID-19,” while regularly dismissing “public health guidance” and promoting the products “as equal or better protection against COVID-19 than currently available vaccines,” according to the lawsuit.
“Between June 2020 and February 2021, defendants posted hundreds of videos containing the WW Vita D and WW Zinc COVID-19 claims … to the Nepute Facebook Page, which were viewed, cumulatively, millions of times,” the complaint added.
Nepute and Quickwork, which also does business as Wellness Warrior, did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on the lawsuit.