Feds crack down on vision apps claims

via Moak: Feds crack down on vision apps claims, Clarionledger.com, 10/19/2015.

Back in 2008, the National Eye Institute released a study showing the number of Americans whose vision suffers from nearsightedness (myopia) had mushroomed by 66 percent since the 1970s. The institute reported the number of squinting Americans, which had been at about a quarter of the population in the early 1970s, had risen to nearly 40 percent. A number of possible causes were mentioned, but some suspect our addiction to screens isn’t helping.

Myopia is just one of many eye conditions that can range from mildly annoying to debilitating. As we get older, most of us will find our vision needs a little help. Usually, glasses or contacts will take care of it, and, with newer technologies such as Lasik, many people can get satisfying results. But these treatments can also be expensive, especially if you don’t have vision insurance. As with any such problem, would-be entrepreneurs have found there’s money to be made if you can convince people you have a solution.

For example, you may recall the “See Clearly Method,” which was heavily marketed from 2001 until 2006 (featuring the loved-and-trusted Mariette Hartley), promising your vision could improve with a few simple exercises and hokey self-affirmations. After consumers began to complain, investigators jumped on the case, leading to a lawsuit filed by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. It didn’t take long for things to unravel; the company was soon out of business.

But that hasn’t deterred others who would benefit financially from promising they could help us see better. It’s perhaps a bit ironic that computer programs and smartphone apps would actually be claimed to help improve your vision, since screens are suspected by some of making the problem worse. (See this WebMD article about Computer Vision Syndrome).

One company has recently caught the attention of federal regulators. A couple of weeks ago, California-based Carrot Neurotechnology, which marketed software and smartphone apps, was ordered to stop making “deceptive claims” that their “Ultimeyes” app could improve users’ vision. Under threat of suit, the company and its owners agreed to stop making the claims and pay $150,000 as part of a proposed settlement.

Ultimeyes is accused of claiming their product (which sold for between $5.99 and $9.99) was “scientifically shown to improve vision,” and could “Turn Back the Clock on Your Vision.” According to a release by the Federal Trade Commission, ads claimed that users would benefit from “comprehensive vision improvement” for activities such as sports, reading and driving, and that using the app would reduce the need for glasses and contact lenses.

“The app is based on a series of visual exercises related to reading speed, contrast sensitivity and low light conditions among other elements,” the agency noted. “Those claims were, however, allegedly unsupported by objective scientific studies.” One study was, in fact, conducted by Dr. Adam Seitz, co-owner of the company. The FTC alleges in its complaint that Seitz’ interest was not disclosed. (Currently, Ultimeyes’ website does disclose Seitz’ ownership.)

“This case came down to the simple fact that ‘Ultimeyes’ promoters did not have the scientific evidence to support their claims that the app could improve users’ vision,” said Jessica Rich, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Health-related apps can offer benefits to consumers, but the FTC will not hesitate to act when health-related claims are not based on sound science.”

The proposed settlement with the FTC “requires Carrot and its owners to have competent and reliable scientific evidence before making the vision claims challenged in the FTC complaint for Ultimeyes and similar products, or claims regarding the health benefits, performance, efficacy, safety, or side effects of any product or service.” The proposed order would prohibit the company from misrepresenting any scientific research, and it requires them to clearly disclose any connections with anyone conducting or participating in scientific research they cite as substantiation for their claims, and with anyone endorsing their products.

Perhaps the lesson learned here is there are no easy fixes. If you are having trouble seeing, call an optometrist or ophthalmologist, who can take a look, use proven science to diagnose the problem and suggest solutions. Ultimately, your eye health is too important to trust to a $6 iPhone app.

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