trickle down pseudoscience: why mlms jumped into the supplement game

MLMs prey on human vulnerabilities to hijack the health industry. And they have a lot of help in high places.

spoonful of drugs

The history of cure-alls is a colorful and at times deadly illustration of the human appetite for a quick fix. And in its roots we find the seeds not only of the modern-day charlatans that dominate multi-level marketing companies but also the beginnings of drug regulation, and the continuing difficulties in encourage society to choose science over superstition.

Cure-alls, potions, and elixirs evolved out of ancient Rome, where a suspicious, wealthy ruling class feared natural toxins administered in secrecy and sought to develop a universal remedy. This “cure,” sometimes referred to as a theriac, developed over several centuries into something that could not only ward off poisoning, but that might serve as a magical remedy for anything that threatened human mortality. And it gave rise to an entire industry of “snake oil” salesmen whose marketing ploys and scientific methods bear a startling resemblance to some of the companies currently hawking their wares in the health and supplement industry.

It’s not as if the idea of a quick fix for what ails us is a new idea. Heroin as a cough remedy and vibrators to cure hysteria are just a few of the panaceas that gained prominence in the scientific community once upon a time. It would be silly to assume that the kinds of assumptions and medical missteps that lead us to embrace those ideas don’t still exist in modern times. Indeed this basic human instinct to rely on mysterious remedies based on shoddy research has brought us current trends like superfoods, natural diet pills, and essential oils.

We’ve learned a lot about the science behind nutrition and medicine, but why are we perpetually drawn in by these false promises despite a better understanding of science and a widespread saturation of health information online? The answer lies not in history or medicine, but in the science of the human mind.

As much as there is a profile we can derive of the kinds of people who are vulnerable to conspiracy theories, the same ingredients make up the recipe for those who buy into the worst bunk of the supplement industry. And their vulnerabilities are exploited by multi-level marketing companies (MLMs) who use the influence of peers, religion, and social media to capitalize on the false promises and pseudoscience these popular supplements are based on.

why utah has mlms down to a science

Utah has some of the largest MLMs in the country and far and away the highest number of people involved in multi-level marketing companies. It’s considered the world’s capital of MLMs, and there’s a very good reason that these types of predatory health companies thrive as big business in the Beehive State. Before we delve into that, let’s discuss what multi-level marketing is and why it’s an exploitive model.

Multi-level marketing is sometimes called direct sales because these businesses do not use traditional distribution channels for their products. They market to customers online on social media, through hosting live events, and via word of mouth. This approach allows MLMs to skirt regulations and operate outside of traditional retail models, but it requires a vast and effective sales network. That’s where the Mormon culture steps in and lends a hand.

The LDS church dominates every sector of life in Utah, shaping legislation, business standards, and social and cultural norms. Mormons, because of their indoctrination in the church, are comfortable with the hierarchical structures and the idea of mystical experiences that are the backbone of MLMs. Raised with door to door sales as part of their calling as missionaries, Mormons also have incredibly tight-knit communities where members of the church are instructed only to patronize LDS owned businesses. With a large population of stay-at-home moms, many Utah families struggle to make ends meet and supplementing their income with these local, direct sales opportunities seems to be a natural fit.

Out of the 13 companies that are wildly popular and make up the backbone of the 7.6 billion dollars MLM companies generated last year, 10 are associated with dietary supplements or essential oils, and almost all of them are headquartered in Utah. They leech off the religious eco-system, perpetuating the worst sorts of scams on a naive population who end up investing in products they can’t sell while executives at these MLMs take home million dollar salaries.

Like any industry such as big tobacco, healthcare, or pharmaceuticals, Utah’s MLMs don’t operate in a vacuum. There is an entire network of enablers disguised as church officials, government lobbyists, politicians, and community leaders who help these corrupt companies continue to prosper at the expense of their constituents and their communities.

And there’s a reason so many successful MLMs end up delving into the world of health supplements. Thanks to a combination of lack of regulation, the prevalence of false claims based on pseudoscience, and the human yearning for a quick fix at any price, vitamins and supplements are an easy way to turn bits of herbs and contaminants into big bucks.

In the best case scenario, consumers are simply being scammed out of money for products that have little to no effect. Unfortunately though, just because something is “all-natural” or “herbal” doesn’t mean it’s an innocuous substance. Take for instance St. John’s Wort, one of the most popular herbal supplements sold in the United States. More than two decades ago, the National Institute of Health published a study showing that St. John’s Wort can interfere with the effectiveness of antibiotics and birth control. Despite these warnings, it remains widely used in supplement formulas currently on the market.

How does the health industry get to run riot and defraud the public with dangerous supplements despite the fact that the federal government has an entire organization devoted to protecting the food supply and regulating drugs within the United States?  Ah, well the answer is simple. They have plenty of help.

how politicians prop up mlms

The revenue of these direct sales companies isn’t based on their products. It relies on how these pyramid schemes enrich people at the top. The business model entails recruiting distributors, who in turn recruit more distributors, with each layer handing proceeds up the chain. They’re exploitative business models, but they’ve got powerful friends in high places. Specifically among lobbying groups that have long held court with politicians and the millions of dollars they use to bribe them into looking the other way.

Former congressman Jason Chaffetz was one of them. He was a spokesperson for one of Utah’s largest and most profitable MLMs, NuSkin. NuSkin was the subject of an investigation by Congress for fraudulent practices, but you’d never know it based on how local politicians have rolled out the red carpet for the company’s executives. Jon Huntsman brought them on a trade trip to China when he was governor, and Orrin Hatch, Utah’s longest sitting senator, invited NuSkin to testify on the hill about trade policy. NuSkin’s chairman has also been involved in Mitt Romney’s election, volunteering his time and contributing to his recent senate campaign.

Utah’s attorney general, Sean Reyes, has joined the chorus as an enthusiastic champion not for consumers but for the MLMs that exploit them. He was the special guest speaker at their national conference in Salt Lake City in 2017. Reyes brushed aside concerns about companies like HerbaLife, but the dangers they pose are real. And they aren’t just about the fraudulent nature of the MLM business model. Those who take the herbal supplements and homeopathic remedies these charlatans produce instead of seeking professional help raise grave concerns among the medical community.

And any discussion about the evils committed by MLMs would be incomplete without pointing out Orrin Hatch as the true villain of this story. In 1994, Hatch introduced DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health and Information Act), an act that eliminated government regulation of the dietary and herbal supplements industry and essentially ushered in the legal marketing of quack medicine. Because of Orrin Hatch, whose top campaign contributors include Herbalife International, the Food and Drug Administration can not block a supplement from reaching the market and can only take action if it learns of safety issues with the product after it has been sold to consumers.

This brings us to a final and vital point. It’s not just the exploitative business models and the magic sugar pills. It’s also that some of this stuff is downright dangerous. Beyond the fact that herbal supplements have real effects and interactions, these companies foster a climate that creates increased rates of anti-vaxxers and religious zealots who refuse medical treatment. As the dollars flow into these MLMs at the expense of the poor and uneducated masses, it also opens the doors for significantly dangerous practices to perpetuate and grow in the health industry that will have real long term consequences.

And until there are politicians interested in taking on big business instead of profiting from it, these MLMs will continue to exploit the most vulnerable among us.

# health // mlm / pseudoscience / supplements


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