(Hartford, CT) – U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal today warned about potentially deceptive marketing practices at Rite Aid pharmacy stores using so-called “wellness ambassadors” wearing white coats, potentially mistaken for pharmacists, dispensing or directing customers to dietary supplements. In a letter to the company, joined by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), Blumenthal called for an explanation from the company as to possible confusion and deception resulting from this use of “wellness stations” located near the pharmacy section of the store soliciting customers seeking medical assistance.
“I am concerned that Rite Aid customers seeking a prescription or over-the-counter drugs are misled into believing the wellness ambassador is a pharmacist or health professional qualified to give medical advice,” said Blumenthal. “This potential for confusion could have dramatic and dangerous consequences for consumers. People possibly posing as pharmacists wearing white coats in the pharmacy area could be making false and misleading claims about these dietary supplements, which have not been reviewed by the FDA or approved to be marketed like drugs. The dangers are especially grave for vulnerable groups like seniors who may be more likely misled.”
The full text of the letter is below:
March 8, 2012
Mr. John T. Standley
President and Chief Executive Officer
Rite Aid Pharmacy
30 Hunter Lane
Camp Hill, PA 17011
We are writing to inquire about potentially deceptive marketing practices at Rite Aid Pharmacy stores that could mislead consumers seeking medical advice and direct customers to treat health conditions with dietary supplements.
As a result of the partnership between Rite Aid and the dietary supplement retailer GNC Holdings, Inc., GNC stores have been placed in more than 2,000 Rite Aid pharmacies. It has come to our attention that Rite Aid is establishing “wellness stations” within its stores, which are staffed by “wellness ambassadors” who take health questions from customers and recommend dietary supplements to treat medical conditions.
Because these wellness stations are located near the pharmacy, we are concerned that customers seeking medical assistance are misled to believe the station is affiliated with the pharmacy. The confusion is compounded by wellness ambassadors wearing white coats similar to those worn by pharmacists. On Rite Aid’s website, the job description for wellness ambassadors only requires a “high school diploma or general education degree (GED), plus one year experience in retail or healthcare industry.” In contrast, a typical pharmacist position requires a candidate to hold a doctor of pharmacy degree (Pharm.D) and complete a licensing examination. We are concerned that Rite Aid customers seeking a prescription or an over-the-counter drug are misled into believing the wellness ambassador is a pharmacist or health professional qualified to dispense medical advice. This potential for confusion could result in dramatic and dangerous consequences for consumers.
Furthermore, we are deeply concerned that wellness ambassadors could be making false and misleading claims by marketing dietary supplements as treatments for health conditions. The Federal Trade Commission Act prohibits marketing products through “unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” such as making explicit or implied medical claims that a dietary supplement can treat, prevent, or cure a specific disease or condition. Because wellness ambassadors field questions from Rite Aid customers about treatments for symptoms and health conditions, we are troubled that customers could be directed to purchase dietary supplements, which have not been reviewed by the FDA or approved to be marketed like drugs.
These practices raise questions about Rite Aid Pharmacy potentially misleading customers who trust your company to provide credible health information. To ensure consumer safety and to better understand Rite Aid Pharmacy’s wellness stations and ambassadors, we ask for your response to the following questions:
- What training do wellness ambassadors receive to safely advise customers seeking product recommendations for medical conditions?
- What steps does your company take to inform consumers that a wellness ambassador, wearing a white coat, is not a pharmacist or trained health professional?
- What corporate plan is in place to ensure wellness ambassadors do not make unfounded medical claims that dietary supplements can prevent, treat, or cure health conditions? If a corporate plan exists, how is it enforced?
- Do wellness ambassadors take into account and advise customers of any dangers associated with a dietary supplement or drug that they recommend to customers? For example, if a product should not be used by pregnant women, does the wellness ambassador ascertain whether a customer is pregnant before referring her to the product or caution the customer about the product’s risks?
- Do wellness ambassadors solely or mostly direct consumers to dietary supplements as health aids?
- Wellness ambassadors appear to employ tablet computers and software to assist them in their interactions with customers. Does this software refer customers with specific symptoms to specific products? If so, are these products dietary supplements, drugs, or both?
- How many Rite Aid stores have wellness stations and wellness ambassadors? Does Rite Aid intend to place wellness stations and ambassadors in all of its stores?
Thank you for your consideration of this matter.
Richard J. Durbin