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Agrees to Stop False Advertising
Stephen Barrett, M.D.
NCAHF has won a civil lawsuit against Aroma Vera, Inc.,
a leading manufacturer of aromatherapy supplies and other personal-care
products. The suit, filed in 1997, charged that the company and
its president Marcel Lavabre had violated California's
Business and Professions Code by making advertising false
claims about many products. The lawsuit disputed that the products
can promote health and well-being, relax the body, relax the mind,
enhance mood, purify the air, are antidotes to air pollution,
relieve fatigue, tone the body, nourish the skin, promote circulation,
alleviate feminine cramps, or do various other things claimed
by the company.
The suit sought sought restitution for consumers, cessation
of these claims, and payment of reasonable attorney fees and costs.
The National Council Against Health Fraud served as the plaintiff,
and I was the expert witness in the case. In 1998, the trial judge
ruled that the council lacked standing to file the suit and could
not possibly show that there is a likelihood that the public would
be misled by the advertising in question, because it did not produce
any misled victims. However, in 1999, an appeals court reversed
this ruling so that the case could proceed to trial. This court
concluded that "in order to prove a cause of action for misleading
advertising, a plaintiff need only show the public is likely to
be misled." 
Lack of Supporting Evidence
Early in the proceedings, Aroma Vera was asked to identify
and produce any documents supporting the challenged claims. Its
response included a copy of "The Aromatherapy Database: Research
Into The Physiological and Psychological Properties of Essential
Oils and Their Components," which summarized 500 articles
related to research on essential oils. My analysis, which was
submitted to the court, included the following observations:
- Seventy-three of these involved human tests; 134 involved
animal or cell culture; 209 involved tests on bacteria, fungi,
other microbes, or insects; 28 involved laboratory studies; 49
were reports or studies of toxic reactions; 3 were review articles
or discussions; and 4 didn't present enough information to classify
- Many of the reported test results were inconclusive, equivocal,
and even contradictory to the claims being made about the benefits
of aromatic oils in general or the particular oil in question.
For example, Aroma Vera's "Relaxation," which contains
lavender oil, is advertised to relax the body. However, the database
states that an "experiment" on lavender oil "suggested
that lavender oil was highly arousing and distracting."
- The only studies that could possibly be relevant to consumer
use are human studies. However, most of the 73 human studies
in The Aromatherapy Database were not relevant to their advertising
claims, because they involved medicinal uses in which they were
swallowed in capsules, injected during medical procedures, applied
to the skin for the treatment of skin diseases. Only 33 of the
human studies involved inhalation. Although a few of these suggested
the possibility that a few aromatic oils might have useful effects,
only a few oils were studied, some of the studies were not controlled,
some were irrelevant to consumer use, some have serious design
flaws, and some even reported negative results.
- Few abstracts in the Aromatherapy Database revealed dosages
or plant sources, so that even if there were evidence that a
particular oil was useful, it would be impossible to tell whether
the study was relevant to the dosage used in a corresponding
- All things considered, the database does not support for
the sweeping claims made in Aroma Vera's advertisements.
The appellate court ruling stated that my criticisms of Aroma
Vera's supporting documents are "not unfounded." 
In September 2000, one week before the trial was scheduled
to take place, the case was settled
out of court with a $5,700 payment to NCAHF's attorney and a court-approved
stipulation prohibiting the defendants from making 57 of the disputed
claims in advertising within California .
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This article was revised on November
- Court of Appeal of the State of California, Second Appellate
District, Division Five. National Council Against Health Fraud,
Inc., v. Aroma Vera, Inc., et al. Superior Court No. BC183903.
Aug 10, 1999.
- Stipulation for Judgment.
National Council Against Health Fraud, Inc., v. Aroma Vera, Inc.,
et al. Superior Court No. BC183903. Sept 24, 2000.