BEN CARSON THE SNAKE OIL SALESMAN

        

As a physician and researcher for many years, I have, on numerous occasions, been paid by pharmaceutical companies to present information relative to FDA approved drugs. In the process, however, I was never pressured to directly promote any of their products. I merely was asked to present the science supporting the rationale for using these products, and allowed my fellow physicians to make their own judgments about where they may—or many not—fit into their own practices. Moreover, never would I have considered discussing unproven products, often mislabeled “supplements,” for promoting health or fighting disease.

During a recent GOP presidential debate in Boulder, Colorado, CNBC moderator Carl Quintanilla asked Ben Carson, a leading GOP contender and an accomplished pediatric neurosurgeon, about his relationship with a controversial nutritional-supplement company:

“There’s a company called Mannatech, a maker of nutritional supplements, with which you had a ten-year relationship,” Quintanilla asked. “They offered claims that they could cure autism and cancer. They paid $7 million to settle a deceptive-marketing lawsuit in Texas and yet your involvement continued. Why?”

Initially responding, Dr. Carson denied such a relationship, stating “Well, it’s easy to answer. I didn’t have an involvement with them. That is total propaganda and this is what happens in our society.”  Later, however, he stated “I did a couple of speeches for them. I did speeches for other people, they were paid speeches.”  But then he switched back to a full denial.  Flip-flopping a bit later, however, he sheepishly stated “Do I take the product? Yes, I think it’s a good product.”

Really! No involvement and a good product? Let’s look a bit closer at this statement.

Carson first spoke out in favor of Mannatech products over a decade ago when he claimed that the Texas-based company’s “glyconutritional supplements,” which included larch-tree bark and aloe vera extract, helped him overcome prostate cancer. The company doctor, presumably from Mannatech, “prescribed a regimen of supplements,” Carson told its sales associates in a 2004 speech. “Within about three weeks my symptoms went away, and I was really quite amazed,” he said to loud applause, according to a YouTube video of the event. Today, Carson is allegedly cancer-free after surgery, telling associates of Mannatech that he initially considered forgoing surgery and treating the cancer with supplements only. Sadly, statements such as this reflect either a bad doctor or an outright liar!  Take your pick.

As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, Carson’s relationship with the company deepened over time, including “four paid speeches at Mannatech gatherings, most recently one in 2013 for which he was paid $42,000, according to the company.” The company disputes that Carson was a “paid endorser or spokesperson,” according to the Journal, and claims his financial compensation went to charity.

National Review also highlighted Carson’s connections to Mannatech in January this year and how Carson’s team went to great lengths to distance themselves from the company. Some of his video appearances have been removed from the Internet, but those that remain appear to show a deeper affiliation than Carson claimed during Wednesday’s debate.

But what about Mannatech’s products? Are they safe and effective, as the company claims? Nobody can answer this question, for they are all considered dietary supplements and not drugs, and as such, they need not comply with the FDA’s rigorous requirements to be marketed as drugs. I have reviewed this company’s illustrious list of products and find no credible scientific evidence that any of them are effective—and most troubling—safe. Many of us may not be aware that, recently, numerous serious deleterious health effects have been encountered in people taking various supplements that have evaded scrutiny prior to their infliction on the public.

Mannatech supposedly made $415 million in the last 12 months selling pills and powders made from larch bark and aloe, known as glyconutrients, marketed under the trade name of Ambrotose, a so called “nutritional supplement that helps the cells in one’s body communicate with one another”. The product is shipped directly from the company to customers, with sales “associates” getting a cut of the profits. .

A three-month “20/20” hidden camera investigation found outlandish claims being made by some Mannatech sales associates around the country, extolling what they say are the extraordinary powers of Ambrotose, which, unsurprisingly, costs at least $200 a month.

In one video for Mannatech last year that remains online, Carson discusses his experiences with nutritional supplements while seated next to the company’s logo. “The wonderful thing about a company like Mannatech is that they recognize that when God made us, He gave us the right fuel,” Carson explained. “And that fuel was the right kind of healthy food… Basically what the company is doing is trying to find a way to restore natural diet as a medicine or as a mechanism for maintaining health.” Carson stopped short of making substantive medical claims about Mannatech’s products. “You know, I can’t say that that’s the reason I feel so healthy,” he said. “But I can say it made me feel different and that’s why I continue to use it more than ten years later.” His apparent hesitation is understandable. Seven years before Carson appeared in that video, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican who was elected governor of Texas last year, sued Mannatech for running a illegal marketing scheme under the state’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Abbott claimed that the Dallas-based company and its sales representatives repeatedly exaggerated the medical efficacy of their products.

So, you be the judge: Is he a bad doctor, a liar, or simply a “hired gun”? More importantly, do you want him as your president?

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POTENTIALLY TOXIC SUBSTANCES CONTINUE TO BE SOLD AS “SUPPLEMENTS”

As recently reported in a major medical journal§, an estimated 23,000 hospital emergency department visits in the U.S each year are attributed to adverse events related to “dietary supplements.” These products, poorly supervised by authoritative bodies, are sold for the promotion of numerous ostensible health “benefits” ranging from weight-loss, enhancing energy and sexual prowess, heart health, improving memory, and almost any other imaginary or real problem. One such offender recently caught my attention: Prevagen, which will be described below.

Seen advertised in major TV channels, Prevagen is hyped as a “brain vitamin” that can “dramatically improve such things as learning, short-term memory and word recall”. Adding to its apparent legitimacy, it is sold through major retailers, including CVS Pharmacy and Walgreens. The company’s website says Prevagen “does not carry any serious side-effects.”

The “active” ingredient in Prevagen is apoaequorin, which is found in a certain kind of jellyfish. But because the company manufactures a synthetic form of apoaequorin, the supplement is considered a drug, according to the FDA. As a drug, the company must perform studies to show it is both effective and safe, and they are supposed to follow drug labeling and marketing regulations. But this is another example of the blurry line between supplements and drugs and how consumers can get caught in the middle. In general, the supplements industry enjoys great financial returns through exaggerated or false promises. Clearly, the safety of Prevagen, whether synthesized or taken from “natural” jellyfish, needs to be proven before it is offered to the public and should be sold as a drug, not a vitamin. One member of the scientific community, neuroscientist Baron Chanda, after reviewing the online Prevagen “research” (not published in acceptable scientific journals), stated that “This product doesn’t make sense. It’s basically quackery. There is no way the apoaequorin protein could survive the digestive tract and make its way to the brain”. Prevagen purchasers, he suggests, “are basically being played for suckers.”

But, sadly, even though the FDA has been investigating this scandalous marketing since at least 2012, they have been unable to stop its marketing and sales to this date. In a warning letter, the FDA accused the company of not reporting to the government adverse events like seizures, strokes, and worsening symptoms of multiple sclerosis that had been reported to them as being associated with the use of Prevagen products. According to the FDA, reports about the product to the company have also included chest pain, tremors, fainting and other serious symptoms. In fact, they found that the company received more than 1,000 incidents and product complaints about Prevagen between May 2008 and December 1, 2011, and only investigated or reported two events.

The FDA has sent a warning letter to Quincy Bioscience, the product’s manufacturer, and is waiting for the company’s response. It could—and should—seek legal action to halt the manufacture and marketing of Prevagen. But we all should be aware of how long this process is taking, and in the meantime, lives are at stake! Nevertheless, sales go on, and we can do little about it but wring our hands and alert as many as possible about these dangers! Unfortunately, this is but one of many such products misleadingly labeled as “supplements” and not drugs.



  • § Geller AI, et al. Emergency department visits for adverse events related to dietary supplements. N. Engl. J. Med 373;16:1531-1540.