Laetrile Spammers Facing $631,585 Penalty

Stephen Barrett, M.D.
March 20, 2001

A federal magistrate has ordered Christian Brothers, of Whitestone, New York, and its president Jason Vale, to stop abusing America Online’s network and trademark in an attempt to sell products. Court documents indicate that the company had unlawfully obtained mailing lists of the e-mail addresses of AOL members and used AOL’s computer networks to send more than 20 million messages — at times sending hundreds of thousands of messages per hour [1].

The company’s product line includes apricot seeds, amygdalin, and a book and a videotape that promote them. Amygdalin is a cyanide-containing compound found in the seeds of apricots and several other fruits. Also marketed as laetrile or “Vitamin B17,” it has been promoted as a cancer remedy for more than 40 years. However, it is neither safe nor effective and is not legal to market or import into in the United States [2].

The unsolicited messages, sent with an return address, provided links to one of at least ten Web sites that provided further information. Some messages pretended that a third party was making the recommendation. For example:

There are many web sites out there that are showing that the answer to cancer has been known. Some of the companies that tell the truth about cancer are Christian Brothers, Something 4U and World Without Cancer Inc. These companies have been showing the evidence that when a person adds bitter seeds to their diet which contain the vitamin B17, they will not get cancer any time in their life. These companies also show that after a person has been diagnosed with cancer, simply adding seeds and vitamin B17 to their diet can shrink the tumors and will protect the rest of the person’s body.

AOL’s membership agreement prohibits the sending of unsolicited commercial bulk e-mail messages (“spam”) and from collecting or harvesting the user names, e-mail addresses, or other information about other AOL members. In February 1998, after receiving thousands of complaints from members, AOL demanded that Christian Brothers stop misusing its network, but the spamming continued. AOL filed suit in December 1998 [3]. In June 1999, after Vale chose to ignore the suit, the presiding judge issued a default judgment and asked a magistrate to recommend the amount of damages. The magistrate recommended that AOL be paid $17,940 for hardware-processing costs, triple damages of $389,020 for lost advertising revenue, $24,625 in attorney’s fees, and $200,000 in punitive damages. He also concluded that a permanent injunction was necessary [1].

In October 1998, the FDA warned Vale that his apricot-seed products were “new drugs” and misbranded, and that he could be subject to enforcement action if he persisted in marketing them [4]. However, Vale’s Web sites continued to make unsubstantiated claims and even hosted a copy of the FDA warning letter. In April 2000, the Justice Department obtained a preliminary injunction prohibiting Vale and Christian Brothers from making or distributing amygdalin, Laetrile, “Vitamin B-17,” or apricot seeds. In November 2000, the FDA announced that Vale and his company had signed a consent agreement to stop manufacturing, processing, and distributing the products [5,6].

  1. Pitman H. Report and recommendation. America Online, Inc. v The Christian Brothers and Jason Vale. United States District Court of the Southern District of New York, 98 Civ. 8959 (DAB)(HBP)
  2. Wilson B: The rise and fall of laetrile. Nutrition Forum 5:33-40, 1988.
  3. America Online, Inc. v The Christian Brothers and Jason Vale. U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, 98Civ 8959, filed Dec 18, 1998.
  4. Holman BJ. Warning Letter to Jason Vale, Oct 28, 1998.
  5. Christian Brothers contracting corporation signs consent decree with FDA; agrees to stop selling all amygdalin/laetrile products. FDA Talk Paper T00-62, Nov 17, 2000.
  6. Lewis, C. Online Laetrile vendor ordered to shut down. FDA Consumer 35(2):7-38, 2001.

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This article was updated on March 20, 2001.