Bitter Pills

Nutraceuticals are big business online. But who's minding the "scientific" claims?

2 min read

Bitter Pills

CNBC is airing a series called "American Greed," which chronicles epic scams online and off.  They recently ran anexpose of Berkeley Nutraceuticals, the company behind Enzyte, a “natural male enhancement." 

Since releasing Enzyte in 2001, the company created both a cultural and economic juggernaut. It started with their ubiquitous pitchman:  Smiling Bob. With his thumbs up sign and strained grin, Bob was a viral phenomenon online and off. Campy ads showed Bob bowling and gardening, rife with cheeky double-entendres about the “big lift” he got from Enzyte.  With $240 million in annual revenues, Berkeley was the great American success story in the $18 billion herbal supplement industry.  The empire fell apart when the company was embroiled in a host of scams, and the story raises questions over the engineering of such pills.

It underscores the wild west that still exists in the "science" of this enormous industry - which gets a huge amount of its sales online.  Yes, there are some regulations - but nothing prohibiting outlaw rule.   Congress passed the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act in 1994 to help protect consumers.  This includes having the Federal Trade Commission regulate the ads we see and hear for supplements.

The protection, however, pales in comparison to real pharmaceuticals.    The regulation occurs after the products hit the shelves.  All the Supplements using existing ingredients can be sold without approval by Food and Drug Administration. In fact, the FDA can only intervene if and when a product is proved to be harmful.  Supplement makers had even more leeway with ads.   While supplement makers couldn’t claim their products cured diseases, there remained plenty of wiggle room:  letting the bill pills as wonder cures from baldness to erectile dysfunction. 

Rich Cleland, assistant director division of advertising practices for FTC, which is now processing a civil case against Berkeley Pharmaceuticals, says the potential for hustlers is rife.  “There’s always someone hawking a product to them that will promise to do with them miracles and lot of people have made lot of money doing that,” he tells me, “These are smart people, they know what people are susceptible to. They know that consumers want a quick fix, they want an easy solution, they want the pill - and scam artists prey on that.”  So what’s a nutritional pill popper to do?   “We tell people it’s in your hands,” Cleland says.

Michael Herndon, a spokesperson for the FDA, paints an even gloomier picture.  “Except for rules described above that govern ‘new dietary ingredients,’ there is no provision under any law or regulation that FDA enforces that requires a firm to disclose to FDA or consumers the information they have about the safety or purported benefits of their dietary supplement products. Likewise, there is no prohibition against them making this information available either to FDA or to their customers. It is up to each firm to set its own policy on disclosure of such information.”


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