ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — A St. Louis County chiropractor is the first person in the U.S. charged under a new law meant to protect Americans from fraudulent claims about COVID-19.
Eric Nepute and Quickwork LLC are facing 10 counts in federal court of violating the COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act. In its case, the FTC said Nepute and his company – which operate several Nepute Wellness Center locations in St. Louis County – baselessly claimed his products with vitamin D and zinc were scientifically proven to treat or prevent COVID-19.
“I feel that I have not done anything wrong," Nepute said in a statement to 5 On Your Side through his attorneys. "I encourage everyone to live a healthy lifestyle during this unprecedented time. My attorneys are reviewing the complaint and I have no further comments at this time."
This is the first case the FTC has brought under the new law, which was passed by Congress in 2020.
“With this case, the Commission has quickly put to use its new authority to stop false marketing claims related to the pandemic,” Acting Chairwoman Rebecca Kelly Slaughter said.
5 On Your Side first spoke with Nepute last April when a video he posted on Facebook got millions of views. In the video, he recommends viewers drink tonic water and take zinc as a “preventative” measure.
"Have about 3 to 4 ounces a day of that Schweppes tonic water and take at least 50 to 100 milligrams of zinc. I'll say that again, 50 to 100 milligrams of zinc. Do it every day as a preventative,” Nepute said in the video.
The chiropractor did tell viewers this wasn’t medical advice, his "disclaimer," a point he reiterated when he spoke to 5 On Your Side in a phone call last year.
"I've never made one claim at all that any of these nutrients cures or prevents coronavirus,” Nepute said.
But the FTC disagrees.
According to the commission’s complaint, Nepute and his company marketed vitamin D and zinc products under the brand name “Wellness Warrior” and claimed they were as effective – or more – than vaccines that are currently available.
The FTC said among Nepute and Quickwork’s bogus claims were that "COVID-19 patients who get enough vitamin D are 52% less likely to die," than those who get enough vitamin D are 77% less likely to get the disease and that his Wellness Warrior vitamin D product is more effective at preventing COVID-19 than approved vaccines.
“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,” Slaughter said.
The FTC sent a letter to Nepute in May 2020 warning him about making the efficacy claims, which weren’t backed up by scientific data.
“Despite receiving the warning letter, Nepute continued marketing vitamins and mineral products – specifically Wellness Warrior vitamin D and zinc – as proven immunity boosters that effectively treat or prevent COVID-19,” the FTC said in a news release Thursday.
The FTC is looking to fine Nepute and Quickwork up to $43,792 for each violation of the COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act, according to the commission’s complaint.
Besides fining Nepute and his company, the FTC is looking to ban them from making similar baseless health claims in the future, “unless they are true and can be substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence.” The commission also wants to ban Nepute and Quickwork from falsely claiming to have scientific proof that vitamin D and zinc can help prevent or treat COVID-19.
“People can claim anything. But it doesn't mean that it's true and it may take some time for them to be held accountable,” said Rebecca Phoenix, an investigator with the Better Business Bureau. She likens fake COVID-19 treatments to modern-day snake oil, with their salesmen often directly contradicting CDC guidance.
“You really need to look for scientific research, particularly when you are considering any kind of a health product.”
You can read the FTC’s full complaint against Nepute and Quickwork online here.