When we think of a Congressional hearing, we think of the grilling Alberto Gonzales got from every member of the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday. But many more hearings happen in obscurity, with sometimes very few of the committee members themselves sticking around for the whole show — or even showing up. These lesser known hearings, however, often contain as much substance as their spectacular counterparts.

Such was the case yesterday when Eileen Harrington, deputy director of the Federal Trade Commission’s bureau of consumer protection, spoke in front of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. According to the Associated Press, she described how many online pharmacies that sell their own estrogen, progesterone and testosterone compounds, also known as bioidentical hormones, continue to make unfounded — and potentially illegal — claims about their products:

In letters to 34 Web sites, the Federal Trade Commission said in November 2005 it may be illegal for them to assert that their hormone products prevent or treat cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis or other health problems. The sites billed the products as natural alternatives to hormone replacement therapy.

Yet 19 of those sites still are selling the "natural" hormone creams and sprays by citing unsupported claims for the products’ benefits, an FTC official told the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

Many of the other Web sites reviewed have modified or removed the objectionable claims […]

"We could have moved faster here and we should have," Harrington told Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon. For most of the hearing, Smith, the committee’s top Republican, was the only one present. Luckily, he had done his homework. He had, in fact, called the hearing because he wanted to spur more action from the FTC — and the FDA:

Smith said his staff members recently bought a tub of progesterone cream from one of the 34 Web sites warned by the FTC in 2005. Advertising material from the site claims the cream increases bone mass density, prevents osteoporosis and decreases the risk of breast cancer.

Government medical experts at the hearing agreed:

"There are no studies that would support such a claim," said Dr. Jacques Rossouw, chief of the Women’s Health Initiative branch in the National Institutes of Health’s national heart, lung and blood institute. […]

"Hormones are hormones are hormones. The same risks apply to compounded ones as apply to FDA-approved ones," the FDA’s Galson told The Associated Press before testifying. "Our position is these pharmacies are taking advantage of women, preying on their fears of menopause."

Plus: On NPR’s "All Things Considered" on yesterday, Michele Norris spoke with Deborah Grady, M.D., a professor of medicine at UCSF, about these compounds and other potential alternatives to hormone therapy. Whether it’s bioidentical hormones, plant estrogens or herbal remedies, most alternatives are ineffective or potentially dangerous, said Grady.

Their conversation was prompted by the new analysis in the New England Journal of Medicine that links the recent decrease in incidents of breast cancer in the United States to the drop in the use of hormone treatment in menopausal women. (See our previous post about the study — as well as Dr. Patricia Allen’s critical assessment of biodentical hormones.)

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  • Dr. Pat Allen April 23, 2007 at 12:27 pm

    Kudos to Senator Smith for taking this issue seriously. Medical consumers cannot always make sense of these snake oil advertisements and faux “wellness” websites. On-going critical oversight is essential.
    And the bad thing is that when one closes down, another opens up. It is the wild, wild west of the internet.
    Perhaps we should ask readers to send in names of sites that promote and sell products for menopausal women? We could all become vigilantes!