May 27, 2008


I've been intending to write a review of Dan Hurley's Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America's Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry (an excerpt here) for a while now, but trying to condense the sheer volume of information down to a simple blog post was damn near impossible: the ground he covers stretches from the original Clark Stanley Snake Oil Liniment (yes, there was a real "Snake Oil" salesman!) through the Wiley Act (AKA the Pure Food and Drug Act) in 1906 to the Kefauver-Harris Amendments (an insistence that drugs be shown safe before they can be sold - a response to the thalidomide disaster in Europe and, to a lesser degree, Canada) and the creation of the Office of Unconventional Medicine by Representative Tom Harkin.

Still, with Bill C-51 before Commons (it's an amendment to the Food and Drug Act), I'm feeling inspired. Even so, I'm going to limit myself to two parts of the story he covers: the people involved and the recent history of pesudo-health in the United States.

Perhaps the best of his historical revelations is the full chapter devoted to the origin of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which literally created a third category between "Food" and "Drug" - "Supplement" - which was subject to neither sets of rules that applied to the other. Hurley gives the example of lamb's brain: put it in a food, and you will have to prove it will not harm your customers; put it in a drug, and you will have to prove not only that it does no harm, but also that it is effective in relieving whatever ailment you claim it does.

Anyone find either of these terms excessively restrictive, or even unreasonable?

By wrapping lamb's brain in cellophane and calling it a supplement, on the other hand, you could move it to market immediately - no evidence of any kind (beneficial or otherwise) being necessary. In fact, the government has to prove that a supplement is harmful before it can be removed from store shelves. Given that there are an estimated 29,000 various supplements available just in the United States, there are years of sales before even the tiniest percentage can be tested for the first time. Meaning a lot of unproven and unknown drugs can be sold, with a lot of money coming the other way.

Speaking of which, one of the recurring themes in Natural Causes is the fascinating tales of the founders of some of the largest supplement companies:

Gary Caton, founder of Alpha Omega, was a counterfeiter;
The founders of Metabolife had previously been impisoned for running a methamphetamine lab;
Robert Occhifinto, whose company (NVE Pharaceuticals) sold ephedrine pills deliberately named after street terms for speed (Yellow Jackets and Black Beauties) served 18 months for importing hashish before he realized where the real money was;
Kevin Trudeau had spent two years in prison for larceny (cheque and credit card fraud) before his $2.5 million in fines for making false and misleading claims;
A. Glenn Braswell, founder of the Journal of Longevity, has had: 138 complaints of false representation lodged against him by the U.S. Postal Service; mail fraud, perjury, and tax evasion convictions; been sentenced to 3 years in prison; and over $11 million in fines levied against him and lost $3.5 million in seized assets. His magazine promoted and reviewed (always positively) supplements manufactured and sold by subsidiaries of GBData Systems, a company owned by A. Glenn Braswell.

Is there a lesson there? Certainly: Braswell's companies have thus far grossed over a combined $1 billion. Who couldn't learn from that? In 1999, 22 vitamin and supplement selling companies were charged with anti-trust behaviour, forming global price-fixing cartel nicknamed "Vitamins, Inc." and were fined nearly $750 million for their practices: all those companies are still around, and in business, today. From the New York Times (October 1999):

"It was, in the words of Joel I. Klein, head of the Justice Department's antitrust division, 'the most pervasive and harmful criminal antitrust conspiracy ever uncovered.'"

There is, natually, a backlash against C-51 (including at this rather hysterical website, which I'll be going back to for a later post): it mostly consists of variety on the theme of how "Big Pharma" is out to drive the truth underground and to ensure people stay sick... forever! BWAhahahahaa! Watching the formation of an astroturf organization as it lobbies against any government controls and how they bring up the same claims of Big Brother/Big Pharma/EvilEvilEVIL that we hear over and over again in Natural Causes proves informative and slightly nauseating at the same time. Yes, it invovles the making of laws...

Handily, Natural Causes includes a short list of folks who attended the Council for Responsible Nutrition's annual meeting in 2004:

Archer Daniels Midland Co.;
BASF Corp.;
Cadbury Adams;
and the Beverage Institute for Health & Wellness.

That last one's Coca-Cola, if you were wondering; and Cargill is the largest privately held company in the world. The others I imagine you recognise. Now I don't consider multi-nationals inherently evil, but I do have a great deal of mistrust of them, and consider that a perfectly natural feeling. Against that line-up, the majority of world nations could be considered "The Little Guy"!

All told, the book is well worth pulling out of the library - though you may wish to buy it if you plan on following it up by reading the hundreds of reference works Hurley used in building this story. He's a good writer, though much of the story is captivating without interpretation. I imagine the opening chapter, following the experiences of nurse Sue Gilliat as she explores an alternative cure and ends up with large pieces of her face missing, is designed to catch the reader's attention; but I think it would have been a better closer, to be read after learning about the world she was stepping into. Horrific endings are always better built up to.


posted by Thursday at 3:12 pm


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