A folksy, popular daytime television host. A legendary radio and television interviewer. And a best-selling author and health guru whose familiar bearded face recently appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
These three men have one thing in common, according to the cover story in the current issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter. They all use their fame to hawk vitamins, herbs, and other dietary supplements that often rely on inflated claims and dubious (or nonexistent) science. Consumers who buy these products may be overpaying or wasting their money entirely, according to CSPI.
Dr. Andrew Weil is the nation's best-known proponent of alternative, or integrative, medicine. His books, speeches, television appearances, and popular websites have made him a trusted household name in health advice. He offers himself to the public and the media as an informed, sensible authority on dietary supplements.
"But Weil is hardly an objective expert on supplements," says CSPI senior nutritionist David Schardt. "The more supplements Weil can persuade consumers to buy, the more he benefits. Consumers should bear that in mind when they listen to his advice."
Weil markets his own brand of 18 vitamin and herb products and is careful to tell consumers that his "after-tax profits go to a foundation that supports integrative medicine." But he rarely discloses that this is not just "a" foundation, but his own Weil Foundation and that its main beneficiary is Weil's own program at the University of Arizona.
What's more, CSPI's review of the 2002-2004 tax returns for the Weil Foundation, the latest available, found that during those years the foundation reported no contributions from Weil or his company and awarded only one $5,000 grant.
But it's the vast sums of money Weil and his company are being paid to promote dietary supplements that CSPI says would really raise consumers' eyebrows-if they knew about it.
In 2003, Weil signed a blockbuster five-year deal with the giant online pharmacy drugstore.com that pays Weil's company and his foundation a guaranteed minimum of $12.4 million in sales commissions and donations on dietary supplements and other products he recommends to consumers at his and drugstore.com's websites. In addition, drugstore.com agreed to pay Weil himself $1.6 million in "honoraria." This financial arrangement came to light only last summer when the company sued Weil for not promoting their products aggressively enough.
"Consumers should know that when they buy any supplements recommended by Andrew Weil on his and drugstore.com's websites, Weil's company is collecting a sales commission of up to 25 percent on every bottle," says CSPI's David Schardt. "Even if some of this money eventually trickles down to his foundation, that's still a pretty big incentive to push lots of vitamins and herbs, even where the evidence is dubious."
For instance, Weil sells his own brand of evening primrose oil, which he recommends for skin conditions, brittle fingernails, arthritis, and PMS. (Drugstore.com pays Weil's company a sales commission of $2.00 to $3.50 on every bottle he sells on the Internet.) But virtually all of the well-designed scientific studies show that evening primrose oil is ineffective for dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema, brittle nails, and PMS, according to an analysis of the research by CSPI. One study did find that the substance helped reduce the tender and swollen joints of rheumatoid arthritis, but only at a dose 28 times higher than Weil sells.
The other celebrities that CSPI says have leased out their names to companies making iffy claims include Phil McGraw (a.k.a. Dr. Phil) and CNN talk show host Larry King. Dr. Phil recently abandoned a line of expensive dietary supplements in the face of a probe by the Federal Trade Commission. Dr. Phil's Shape Up pills were said to contain "scientifically researched levels of ingredients that can help you change your behavior to take control of your weight." Dr. Phil is being sued by California consumers who accuse him (correctly, in CSPI's view) of making false and misleading statements about his supplements
Over the years, CNN's King has done first-person paid testimonials for a wide range of substances, including Garlique garlic pills ("the one to trust," said King), and coral calcium (which "has changed my life and could change yours"). Recently, King has been promoting Ester-C, which CSPI says is an over-hyped brand of vitamin C that is twice as expensive as regular vitamin C.
"Either Larry King has a knack for picking weak products to pitch, or manufacturers seek him out to lend credibility to supplements that could use some," said Schardt.
Weil, McGraw, and King did not respond to Nutrition Action Healthletter's requests for interviews, despite repeated attempts.
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