Aromatherapy Company Agrees to Stop False Advertising

Stephen Barrett, M.D.
November 16, 2000

Los Angeles attorney Morsé Mehrban 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. Mehrban 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.

Mehrban’s 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 had no 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.” [1]

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 them.
  • 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 product.
  • 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.” [1]

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 Mehrban and a court-approved stipulation prohibiting the defendants from making 57 of the disputed claims in advertising within California [2].

  1. 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.
  2. Stipulation for Judgment. National Council Against Health Fraud, Inc., v. Aroma Vera, Inc., et al. Superior Court No. BC183903. Sept 24, 2000.

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This article was revised on November 16, 2000.