Iowa judge orders Colorado operation to cease unsupported “harmonized water” product claims; company to pay $70,000
DES MOINES – The Colorado seller of bottled water products that include “drinkable sunscreen” and mosquito repellent mouth sprays must reform what Attorney General Tom Miller alleged in a consumer fraud lawsuit were deceptive and unfair practices, through a court-enforced agreement reached in Iowa.
The consent order entered Tuesday by District Court Judge Scott D. Rosenberg, bars Osmosis LLC and Harmonized Water LLC, of Evergreen, and company owner Benjamin Taylor Johnson, from making product claims in Iowa that are not supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence. The company does business as Osmosis Pür Medical Skincare. The consent order resolves Miller’s lawsuit, filed in March.
As part of the resolution, the defendants deny liability but pay $70,000, which includes refunds to Iowa consumers and money to the state’s consumer education and litigation fund.
“The practices we alleged in our consumer fraud case are barred in Iowa through this resolution,” Miller said. “Consumers who rely on claims that spritzing water into their mouth will protect them, or treat them, might not use other proven preventive measures or treatments,” Miller added. “That’s dangerous when you’re trying to protect yourself from harmful threats such as cancer-causing sunlight exposure or the Zika virus.”
“Harmonized Water” Products: Simply Water with Complex Claims
Osmosis sells about twenty so-called “harmonized water” products that claim a variety of beneficial, almost miraculous effects. Most are sold in 3-ounce mouth spray bottles, and typically sell for about $30 per bottle.
The only listed ingredient is water. The company claims the water is “enhanced” by being “treated with proprietary frequencies,” or radio waves, giving it special capabilities. According to claims by Johnson and his companies, particular radio frequencies applied to water produce certain protective or health-restoring properties. For example:
- “UV Neutralizer-Tan Enhancing” water is touted as a “drinkable sunscreen” – a few squirts into the mouth are said to protect children and adults from sunburn by creating UV-canceling waves that vibrate above the skin.
- Oral squirts of “Mosquito” water are claimed to fend off mosquitos – and thus protect against serious mosquito-borne diseases – with near 100% effectiveness.
- “Disruptor” water is said to “cancel” pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and is also claimed to cancel “bad memories” and treat autism.
- “Sugar Detox” water is claimed to benefit diabetics by detoxifying sweeteners from the liver.
“The list goes on,” Miller said. “Each of some twenty different water products is sold with ambitious claims for its effectiveness in promoting good health, either by treating ailments or protecting against them in the first place,” Miller added. “Iowa law requires a seller to have a reasonable basis for making such claims, and we alleged the reasonable basis was uniformly lacking.”
Company Prohibited from Unsupported Claims, Misleading Testimonials in Iowa
The consent order prohibits the defendants from making product claims that are not supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence. Miller said that most if not all of Osmosis’s medicine water products involved no reliable scientific testing, which created a public hazard.
The order also prohibits the defendants from using misleading testimonials and endorsements for their medicine waters. Miller said that the Osmosis website repeatedly featured product testimonials from dealers who had a financial interest in product sales – without disclosing the financial ties.
“Testimonials can be extremely persuasive, since consumers are being told that someone just like them had gotten great results from using the product,” Miller said. “But not disclosing an endorser’s special connections to the product is deceptive, which is why the Federal Trade Commission has developed a set of guidelines for testimonials – guidelines that these defendants are now required to follow here in Iowa.”
Consent Order Replaces Preliminary Injunction
In May, a preliminary court injunction barred Osmosis from selling its “harmonized water” products in Iowa during pending litigation. After hearing hours of sworn testimony from Johnson and reviewing numerous Osmosis documents, the judge ruled that the harmonized water products “may jeopardize the health of Iowans by giving a false sense of security, curability and immunity by use of the Defendants’ various products alleged to prevent sunburn, mosquito bites, and acne; treat psoriasis, eczema, and joint pain; as well as assist with infertility, thyroid deficiencies and cancel the negative effects of pathogens…”
“Judge Rosenberg had it exactly right in seeing the need to protect Iowans from these unsupported claims during the litigation,” Miller said. “Today’s consent order continues that protection going forward.”
Miller: Company and Owner Conduct “Especially Egregious”
Miller noted several aspects of the defendants’ conduct in this case that he calls “especially egregious:”
- Defendants’ “harmonizer” machine that supposedly imprints radio waves on water was invented by the late Vern Schroeder, a Carroll, Iowa farmer. But before buying the machine, Johnson signed a purchase agreement for Schroeder’s “frequency water” in which Johnson acknowledged “that the products are placebo in nature and have no dietary or medical properties whatsoever.”
- In July of 2011 Johnson was informed of several instances of burns suffered by users of Osmosis’s drinkable sunscreen, “UV Neutralizer,” and he acknowledged instances of product “failure.” But Johnson was quoted in a March 2012 company news release saying, “There hasn’t been one case of anyone who used the product getting a sunburn.”
- Even though Osmosis’s ads claimed that its drinkable sunscreen contained “scalar waves” that “vibrate above the skin to neutralize UVA and UVB,” Johnson later acknowledged that “We cannot prove the actual existence of scalar waves above the skin.”
- Osmosis arranged a clinical test of UV Neutralizer in San Diego in 2014, in which test subjects using only the UV water laid out in the midday sun for an hour. Osmosis arranged for Dr. Paul VerHoeve to host the study and co-author the final report. When the sun exposure was completed, VerHoeve’s assessment was that “only one out of three did not burn,” and that some participants “burned badly,” including one who “burned to a crisp.”
- Johnson removed several of the burned subjects from the pool of San Diego test subjects after the fact. This removal permitted Osmosis to claim a more favorable 2-to-1 success rate, which the company then publicized as “definitive” proof of the product’s effectiveness.
- In touting the results of the 2014 UV water study, Osmosis’s website repeatedly identified study co-author VerHoeve as a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons (“FACS”), even after he denied ever having had that distinction.
- Osmosis’s website featured a glowing testimonial for its drinkable sunscreen from an Osmosis dealer who had earlier reported to the company that she had “burned several times” using the product. Despite receiving the woman’s report of earlier sunburns, Osmosis solicited her testimonial, and even provided the exact wording of what became the first sentence: “My husband and I used Osmosis UV Protection last summer as our only form of sun protection.”
- In a similar testimonial abuse, a video promoting UV Neutralizer featured a positive endorsement from a woman who had evidently gotten sunburned when she tested the product under the company’s supervision.
- In yet another testimonial abuse, Osmosis didn’t disclose that a woman in a video testimonial for UV Neutralizer was the wife of the man who supervised the study, and that he was given $5,000 in Osmosis products that he and his wife could sell through their clinic.
- Johnson testified to having tested a “harmonized” water product called Emotional Detox on his employees by putting it in the office water one day without telling them. When several emotional outbursts occurred that day among employees, he decided not to launch the product.
- Even though Osmosis’s drinkable mosquito-repellent water (“Mosquito”) had not been clinically tested for effectiveness, in August of 2016 sought to step-up promotion of the product in Florida to get in on sales attributable to the mosquito-borne Zika virus.
“This case illustrates how irresponsible some can be in putting others at risk for the sake of money and publicity,” Miller said. “It is also a cautionary tale for consumers, who need to approach extraordinary health claims with a healthy dose of skepticism.”
- Be skeptical of ads touting extraordinary health benefits that seem to violate common sense. Scientific-sounding language can be used to promote worthless remedies.
- Beware of supposed “scientific breakthroughs” that you first hear about in someone’s product ad. Genuine breakthroughs are likely to receive widespread publicity through trusted news sources.
- Remember that dietary supplements often claim specific health benefits, but they can go on the shelves without proof that they are safe, or that they really work. By contrast, prescription drugs must be scientifically tested before going public.
- Get advice from trusted health professionals who know you and are well-situated to evaluate the best treatments for you. They are typically the most reliable source of help in dealing with health challenges.
- With health fraud as with other consumer frauds, if it sounds too good to be true, it is almost certainly not true.
For more information or to file a complaint, contact the Consumer Protection Division through the Attorney General’s website at www.IowaAttorneyGeneral.gov or email directly to firstname.lastname@example.org. Consumers can also call the Consumer Protection Division at 515-281-5926, or outside the Des Moines area, toll free, at 888-777-4590.