The challenges of public health messaging have been put under the microscope over the past two years. Consumers have been bombarded with misleading and often confusing information, including unsubstantiated claims that cannabis and CBD can prevent, treat or even cure COVID-19. Policymakers at the state and federal levels are engaging in these discussions and considering several proposals — some of which could hinder much-needed research or even pose health risks to patients and consumers.
For example, the New Jersey Legislature is debating whether to mandate taxpayer-funded health insurance coverage for non-FDA approved marijuana products. Such legislation could have negative implications, requiring the Garden State to spend large sums of its limited health care dollars to pay for unproven, untested products. Further, legislation like this leaves little incentive for researchers to conduct the kind of high-quality research required by the FDA — and we may never learn the true therapeutic potential of cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds.
The Food & Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission recently sent warning letters to seven companies using research studies to mislead or imply that their CBD products can cure, treat or prevent COVID. In the letters, the FDA reiterated that it has not approved or authorized any drug containing CBD for the treatment or prevention of COVID. The FDA expressed concerns that frequent deceptive and misleading claims could confuse consumers and delay the reliance on medical-proven, doctor-recommended treatments.
While the warning letters are a step in the right direction, much more needs to be done, as misrepresentation of research findings and unsubstantiated marketing claims create confusion for consumers who are in desperate need of accurate medical information. New research, published out of the Rutgers Center of Alcohol and Substance Use Studies, highlights nearly 1,000 misleading health claims made by manufacturers that cannabis can treat mental health, autism, pain, sexual health, AIDS, cancer and more. The paper found that, while some companies are conducting studies into the therapeutic potential of cannabis, most cannabis and CBD manufacturers make dangerously premature, false or misleading claims.
For years, the National Consumers League has been working to educate the public and policymakers about the risks related to unregulated CBD products and the misinformation in some marketing campaigns. While results of a few studies indicate a therapeutic value of cannabinoids, virtually all claims about safety or efficacy are not supported by robust scientific evidence.
In fact, only one cannabis-derived product has undergone the rigorous evaluation of clinical trials required for FDA approval. Many other cannabis company claims are based on weak or preliminary evidence that may sound scientific, but does not conclusively demonstrate that a product is safe or effective.
The ramifications of these trends are concerning from a health standpoint as well as potential negative implications on future innovation. Deceptive messages about the safety and efficacy of cannabis and CBD could derail progress in cannabinoid therapeutic research. Right now, companies have an incentive to invest in comprehensive studies that could lead to FDA approval for cannabinoid-based drugs: If approved, their products could be covered by health insurance. Deceptive marketing practices could mislead the public and result in ill-conceived policies that put those incentives at risk by offering coverage for products before critical research on the safety and efficacy of products is brought to bear.
The therapeutic potential of cannabinoids is intriguing, but we must wait for definitive evidence and FDA approval before it is accepted as a safe and effective treatment for any given health concern. We need the FDA to apply its authority, expertise and resources to protect public health and safety — before consumer demand and political pressure get too far ahead of science.
Sally Greenberg is the executive director of the National Consumers League. Theodore Caputi is a public health research consultant specializing in behavioral public health and regulatory science.