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Swallowing Anything: The Hype Behind Alternative Remedies
One TV advertisement depicted
by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber
Consumers Union scientist Michael Hansen says he was "pretty horrified" after looking into a question he received recently from Australia. The question came from a man who was trying to obtain a commercial, nonprescription nutritional supplement called "Complete Thymic Formula" from the United States for his girlfriend. The Australian authorities wouldn't let him import it due to fears that it might transmit Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), the human equivalent of mad cow disease.
CJD and mad cow disease both belong to a bizarre group of fatal brain disorders known as "transmissible spongiform encephalopathies" (TSEs), which kill by filling the brains of their victims with microscopic spongelike holes. In England, mad cow disease has reached epidemic levels in the cattle population, and the British beef industry has been devastated by the discovery that human beings are now dying from the disease after eating contaminated meat.
"The authorities had mentioned that human chorionic gonadotrophin from human sources had been linked with an outbreak of CJD cases in Australia," Hansen said, "so he was asking if presence of raw thymus and pituitary from cows was a problem. I emailed him, told him not to use the stuff and asked for information on where in the U.S. he planned to buy it."
The company that manufactures "Complete Thymic Formula" is called Preventative Therapeutics. Hansen, who has been closely studying mad cow disease, was appalled to learn that the a daily dose of their product includes 1.2 grams of bovine thymus, 260 mg. of raw spleen, 130 mg raw lymph nodes, 130 mg. raw bone marrow and 20 mg. raw pituitary. The company suggested that this dose could be "doubled" for extra protection.
"If they'd only add raw intestine, brain and eyes they'd have a virtually complete list of all the tissues that have been shown to be TSE positive in infected animals," Hansen says with considerable irony. "I couldn't believe the amount of these bovine organs/glands that would be consumed. After all, one half a gram of cow brain fed to a sheep once in its lifetime is enough for it to contract BSE. I was also appalled to see that they recommended giving this supplement to children."
And Preventative Therapeutics is only one of the supplement makers in the U.S. engaged in similar risky practices. A brief trip to health food stores by PR Watch found products including "Raw Adrenal," which contains bovine pituitary, adrenal extract and adrenal cortex extract; "Raw Pituitary," which calls itself a "glandular concentrate with synergistic complex" derived from "bovine sources"; "Pituitary Caps" which mix raw pituitary gland with ginseng and gotu kola (a source of caffeine); and "Ultra Female," a "balanced multi-glandular dietary supplement" that boasts of raw bovine ingredients including ovary, mammary, uterus, adrenal gland, pituitary gland, pancreas, thymus and spleen "in a natural base" of raw brain, eye, stomach and kidney.
There is no scientific proof that you will derive any health advantage from consuming these particular animal glands, and they could well kill you if the cow they came from had a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. Unfortunately, lobbying by the multi-billion-dollar supplement industry has effectively guaranteed that most people will never hear about the risks associated with its products, and it has become damn near impossible to get to the truth about their purported benefits.
In August 1997, researchers reported on a study in western Kentucky which suggested that several people there may have contracted CJD by eating squirrel brains. The news prompted a predictable spate of silly jokes about crazed hillbillies and their eating habits, but the people making those jokes are probably unaware that their own diet may include equally strange substances, some of them included in the pills and powders which are sold in health food stores as natural medicines.
The rapidly growing $4-billion-a-year supplement industry has cast itself in the role of an "alternative" to the conventional health-care and food industries. Its marketing relies heavily on rhetoric and imagery that evokes a back-to-nature, anti-commercial, rebellious spirit of do-it-yourself healing in defiance of corporate power and government bureaucracies. In reality, however, the supplement industry has more in common with its mainstream counterparts than either would care to admit.
L-tryptophan, for example, was a popular, over-the-counter "natural amino acid" recommended for weight control and relief of insomnia, depression and stress until 1989, when its use was linked to 38 deaths and 1,500 cases of a painful, debilitating blood-and-muscle disorder called eusinophilia-myaglia syndrome. Investigators traced the outbreak to the Showa Denko company, a $3-billion-a-year Japanese chemical manufacturer that apparently caused the disease by using a new, genetically-engineered bacteria to manufacture contaminated L-tryptophan.
The L-tryptophan outbreak prompted criticisms of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which had issued warnings about health risks from amino acid food supplements as 1972 but had failed to take enforcement action. In 1990, Congress enacted the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), which gave the FDA new authority to require accurate labeling information on processed foods as well as food supplements. Under NLEA, all health claims appearing on package labels would have to be supported by "significant scientific agreement." In addition, products would be required to provide uniform information regarding the product's content of vitamins, minerals, fat, calories, sodium and other nutrients.
One TV advertisement depicted
mock FDA agents dressed in riot gear,
who raided Mel Gibson's house
and confiscated his vitamins.
Under the FDA's proposed rules for implementing its powers, supplements marketed simply as nutritional aids would be subject to the same rules as other food products, while substances marketed as disease cures or treatments would be held to the same "safety and efficacy" standard as drugs sold by the pharmaceutical industry.
Nothing in this labeling proposal would have prevented the manufacture or sale of food supplements, but many supplement marketers rely heavily on extravagant health claims with little scientific backing. Rather than submit to FDA standards, they fought back with a successful orchestrated campaign aimed at persuading consumers that the government was trying to take away their right to buy vitamins.
In 1992, supplement makers called on the Rogers & Cowan PR firm to help launch the Nutritional Health Alliance, a grassroots PR campaign aimed at fighting what it called "the FDA's bias against preventive medicine and the dietary supplement industry."
Rogers & Cowan, a subsidiary of the Shandwick PR megafirm, is known for its Hollywood connections. Its $10-million-a-year income makes it the largest PR firm in southern California. It boasts of its ability to link "the corporate and consumer world with the powerful marketing influence and flair of the entertainment industry." Its clients include Microsoft, Baskin-Robbins ice cream, Nabisco foods and the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company along with film studios and movie stars such as Ann Margret and Dustin Hoffman.
The National Health Alliance campaign against the FDA combined Hollywood razzle-dazzle with grassroots anger. One TV advertisement depicted mock FDA agents dressed in riot gear, who raided Mel Gibson's house and confiscated his vitamins. Gibson joined celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg, Randy Travis, Sissy Spacek, Laura Dern, Mariel Hemingway and Victoria Principal in making public service announcements claiming that the FDA was trying to block consumer access to vitamins.
At the grassroots level, supplement makers turned to their marketing network. Many supplements are sold through multilevel direct sales operations, hierarchical pyramids in which salespeople at higher levels receive royalties on orders filled by salespeople they recruit. At the top of the pyramid, profits can be quite high, but lower-level salespeople typically settle for a discount on their own purchases, combined with a tiny income from sales to friends and relatives. At all levels of the pyramid, salespeople are encouraged to recruit customers through personal testimonials, which in turn are driven by the dream of rising in the hierarchy and achieving "a lifetime of financial freedom."
These consumers/sales representatives, combined with the country's network of 10,000 health food stores and their customers, provided an army of grassroots campaigners which the supplement manufacturers sought to mobilize through millions of dollars in targeted advertising and flyers calling on supporters to "act now to protect your right to use safe vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other dietary supplements of your choice." One brochure by the NHA urged consumers to "write to Congress today or kiss your supplements goodbye."
The goal of the campaign was to ensure passage of the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSLEA), sponsored by Utah Senator Orrin S. Hatch, whose home state is a haven for multilevel marketers and supplement companies. DSLEA forbade FDA from treating food supplements as drugs or food additives and allowed companies to continue making health claims without scientific backing.
Displays were set up at health food stores with copies of letters to be sent to members of Congress. Some stores offered discounts to participants. Others provided free phone lines to call lawmakers. During a nationwide "blackout day," stores refused to sell products that they claimed were threatened. NHA's director warned darkly of a "worldwide conspiracy" led by the "pharmaceutical-medical combine trying to make sure they are not being threatened worldwide by inexpensive, non-patented dietary supplements that will prevent the onset of chronic disease." In the space of 12 months, the campaign generated more than 100,000 letters to members of Congress, more than half of whom responded by signing on to cosponsor Hatch's legislation.
The bill was almost universally opposed, however, by long-time mainstream consumer and health organizations, including Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America, Center for Science in the Public Interest, the American Association of Retired Persons, the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, American Dietetic Association and American College of Physicians.
The supplement makers' campaign was a "big lie," according to Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The consumers who wrote Congress had a financial interest in the matter or were duped into believing the FDA was using the new labeling law to ban their favorite vitamins. . . . People should have the right to try any type of health care that they choose. But what we're talking about is whether the manufacturers have the right to hype supplements on the basis of unreliable scientific information or downright false claims."
According to Jo Reed of the American Association of Retired People, the Hatch bill has made it impossible for the government to take action against a product "unless it has killed enough people to establish a pattern. . . . Why should we have to wait until damage is done?"
Friends in High Places
Anti-government rhetoric aside, the Nutritional Health Alliance and other supplement lobby groups are themselves closely tied in with the same government and industry groups they purport to oppose. NHA's main lobbyist in Washington is Podesta Associates, headed by Anthony T. Podesta, a former aide to Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
Podesta Associates is a Washington powerhouse PR and lobby firm known for its extensive contacts with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and its connections with the Clinton White House are about as close as they get, with Anthony Podesta's brother, John, serving as staff secretary to President Clinton from 1993-95. It works closely with high-tech and telecommunications companies, with clients including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the National Association of Broadcasters, the Newspaper Association of America, and the Unilever Corporation, which is having Podesta Associates lobby on behalf of a fake fat product that Unilever has developed to compete with Proctor & Gamble's Olestra. Podesta is also currently working on behalf of the National Association of Manufacturers to weaken federal air-quality standards. Its clients in the pharmaceuticals industry include the Biotechnology Industry Organization, Genentech, Inc., the Health Industry Manufacturers Association, the National Food Processors Association and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
Another supplement makers' lobby group, the National Nutritional Foods Association, uses McGuiness & Holch, a longtime lobbyist for the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company headed by former Orrin Hatch chief of staff Kevin McGuiness.
The Utah Natural Products Association uses Parry & Romani Associates, a Washington lobby shop whose connections offer a classic glimpse of Washington-style incestuous influence-peddling.
Parry & Romani clients include the American Tort Reform Association, which lobbies to limit lawsuits over defective medical devices and other products; the Lockheed weapons company; Westinghouse Electric; and the Motion Picture Association of America. Its clients in the pharmaceuticals industry include industry leaders Genentech, Glaxo, Hoffman LaRoche, Pfizer, Pharmacia & Upjohn, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Schering-Plough, and the Monsanto corporation, for which it recently lobbied to extend patent rights for the company's arthritis drug.
Parry & Romani is headed byThomas Parry, who, like Keven McGuiness, is a former aide to Orrin Hatch. "The two have a mutually beneficial relationship," reports Washingtonian magazine. "Hatch refers Utah companies to Parry, Parry raises money for Hatch, Parry lobbies Hatch, the clients often gain."
The company's other principal, Romano Romani, served on the staff of Arizona Congressman Dennis DeConcini until DeConcini's embarrassment in the Charles Keating savings-and-loan scandal prompted him to decline seeking reelection. Now their roles are reversed, with DeConcini working as a lobbyist on the payroll of Parry & Romani.
The company also conveniently employs Scott Hatch, Orrin's son, who lobbies on behalf of clients such as the National Medical Device Coalition, the Non-Prescription Drug Manufacturers Association, and Herbalife International, a multilevel sales company whose controversial products include diet aids laced with diuretics, laxatives and caffeine. Herbalife products have drawn dozens of citations for safety and regulatory violations in both the United States and Canada. In response to complaints that its products cause cramps, diarrhea, nausea and headaches, company distributors have reassured customers by saying, "That's great, that's the toxins leaving your system."