Pills promising better sex are at the center of a lawsuit filed against a dozen local liquor store owners, as a Los Angeles area law firm brings a multi-state legal threat to its hometown. The firm is representing a Texas-based supplement company, Outlaw Laboratory, who says mom-and-pop store owners are profiting from products that secretly contain sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra. Suddenly, the convenience store owners find themselves deciding between a five-figure settlement or a protracted court battle.

“It’s really a shadow pharmacy,” lawyer Robert Tauler said, whose firm, Tauler Smith, LLP, has filed nine lawsuits in four states regarding the pills, listing as many as 18 defendants in some cases. “Some people may knowingly understand this is going on and some maybe not.”

The large pills are typically displayed by the register and sold under various brand names including Rhino 8 Platinum 8000, ExtenZone 3000, Love Zen 3000, or Black Mamba Premium, according to court documents.

In February, the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers not to purchase or use Rhino 7 Platinum 5000, citing sildenafil as an “undeclared ingredient” that “may lower blood pressure to dangerous levels” in people who take nitrates for various conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease. The FDA warned of a growing number of supplements with hidden drugs and chemicals.

“These products are typically promoted for sexual enhancement, weight loss, and bodybuilding and are often represented as being ‘all natural,’” the FDA said.

Tauler told the Daily Press the FDA’s warning did little to discourage the sale of products that may contain sildenafil, claiming his firm has found over 2,000 name variations for the pills as manufacturers seek to avoid warnings and detection by the Food and Drug Administration.

His firm has sued up and down the supply chain and across state lines. He says it is difficult to go after the actual manufacturer in most cases, because the pills are typically made in China and then sold to individual brick-and-mortar stores. Pills that wholesale for $1 a are sold at the register for $10, bringing in a handsome profit for store owners. Tauler claims he sent multiple warning letters before taking the mom-and-pop owners to court in May.

“The problem is widespread and we’ve issued many letters,” Tauler told the Daily Press. “Our goal is to eliminate the products from the marketplace.”

But the owner of Broadway Wine and Spirits says he never received a warning. Instead, about six months ago Joe Green received a letter by certified mail saying he could settle for $10,000 or face a lawsuit. Green’s distributor, Basc Communications Corp, told him the letter was a scam and encouraged him to keep stocking the pills. An employee for Basc told the Daily Press they buy the pills at a warehouse in Downtown Los Angeles and maintain they are safe and that the lawsuit is a scam.

“The only letter we got was the first one that said ‘give me ten thousand dollars or we’re suing you,’” Green said. Green, who has run the family-owned business with his wife, Lisa, for the last fifteen years, said the process felt like a shakedown. He has pulled the products from his shelves, which were all marked “made in the USA” and contained other claims like “100% genuine” and “Manufactured in a FDA-Registered Facility.”

Green said Basc even sent him a letter assuring him the products were legitimate. The lawsuits caught him and other family-run businesses off guard and they are hesitant to pay the tens-of-thousands of dollars to retain a lawyer. Greens says small business owners rely on the manufacturers and distributors to make sure their products are safe.

“How are we supposed to know? Am I supposed to go to the FDA ban list every day and check for products?” Green said.

USC business ethics and product liability expert C. Kerry Fields said California law allows competitors and customers to sue store owners for false advertising if products contain secret ingredients. Most liability insurance policies do not cover false advertising claims, so store owners should be cautious when stocking products that could lead to lawsuits, according to the professor.

“Any goods that are not distributed by large, nationally recognized retailers should probably be given a second and third look before they go on the shelves,” Fields said. “There may be a good margin selling those products but it’s not worth the risk because they are representing to the public that their goods are safe.”

Fields said the store owners would be wise to settle quickly and then file a reimbursement claim against the distributor for providing a faulty product.

“Consumers might sue them as well so it’s best to suppress litigation as quickly as possible,” Fields said.

The plaintiff in the lawsuits, Texas-based Outlaw Laboratory, sells a sexual performance product called “TriSteel 8 Hour” that they claim is all natural. A customer service representative for Outlaw told the Daily Press to contact the law firm for all questions regarding the company and the lawsuits.

Tauler, the lawyer bringing the lawsuits, specializes in supplement litigation and worries the defendants are getting bad legal advice. He compared ignoring his letters and lawsuits to ignoring a tumor on your neck.

“We want them to know it’s really serious and what they’re doing is putting people in danger but for some reason, it doesn’t click,” Tauler said. “They have to bear some responsibility for what they’re selling.”