Federal drug regulators warned consumers to stop using Zicam, a popular homeopathic cold remedy, because it could damage or destroy their sense of smell.
The Food and Drug Administration received 130 reports from consumers and doctors of people losing their sense of smell after using one of the Zicam nasal products, which include Zicam Cold Remedy and Zicam Cold Remedy Swabs. The reports date to 1999, when Matrixx Initiatives of Scottsdale, Ariz., first introduced the products.
In 2006, Matrixx paid $12 million to settle 340 lawsuits from Zicam users who claimed that the product destroyed their sense of smell, a condition known as anosmia. Hundreds more such suits have since been filed.
The agency issued its consumer alert even though Matrixx refused to recall its products, a highly unusual event. In a news release, Matrixx said it had suspended shipments of Zicam and would reimburse customers who wanted a refund.
“Matrixx Initiatives stands behind the science of its products and its belief that there is no causal link between its intranasal gel products and anosmia,” the release said. “For this reason, Matrixx Initiatives believes that the F.D.A. action is unwarranted and will seek a meeting with the F.D.A. to review the company’s product safety data.”
Matrixx had $101 million in sales last year, of which $40 million came from Zicam products. Because Matrixx has called Zicam a homeopathic product, the company was not required to seek agency approval before selling it.
The F.D.A. does not have the power to order product recalls but must rely on manufacturers to do so voluntarily. Bills now moving through Congress would give the agency that power.
An F.D.A. warning letter sent to Matrixx states that Zicam Cold Remedy intranasal products “may pose a serious risk to consumers who use them” and are “misbranded.” Such language would normally describe a recall alert. The products have no proven benefits.
Matrixx has received more than 800 reports of Zicam users losing their sense of smell but did not provide those reports to the F.D.A., said Deborah M. Autor, director of compliance in the agency’s drug center.
“This disabling loss of one of the five senses may be long lasting or even permanent in some people,” Ms. Autor said. “People without the sense of smell may not be able to detect dangers such as gas leaks or smoke. They could lose much of the pleasure of eating, adversely impacting the quality of life.”
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