By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
In many cases RSI's enthusiastic doctor-distributors are merely repeating the product testimonials from the company's promotional audiotapes. If you believe those tapes, you might think that Rexall supplements treat, cure, and prevent a startling range of diseases. On "Doctors Speak Out," a tape released by RSI in 1996, people who identify themselves as MDs, dentists, chiropractors, and hospital administrators tout the following remarkable results from using various RSI products:
A man with angina lowered his cholesterol 80 points and was able to play golf with no chestpain.
Urinary problems due to an enlarged prostate disappeared.
Congestive heart failure symptoms vanished.
A young woman was cured of borderline anorexia nervosa.
That's not all. The Rexall Showcase International Corporate Profile Booklet from 1997 promises that various products control blood sugar, protect children against various diseases, relieve menstrual symptoms, and ease pain from arthritis. The company's 1998 booklet tones down these claims, and its Website now offers a disclaimer that the products are not intended to treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Gold said that his company reviews labeling and promotional claims for products "very, very, very closely." All promotional audiotapes, including "Doctors Speak Out," were submitted to the company for compliance review before being sold by distributors, he noted. Under FTC guidelines for dietary supplement advertising, companies must be able to show reliable scientific evidence to substantiate claims that their products are beneficial in the treatment of a disease. Rexall Sundown's 10K report claims that the company's current advertising is in "substantial compliance" with thoserules.
But Richard Cleland, a senior staff attorney in the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection who reviewed a transcript of "Doctors Speak Out" for New Times, had a different view. "It's pretty amazing," he says, adding that he can't comment specifically without further agency investigation. "I can say that the types of claims here would legally require competent, reliable scientific evidence, or else the company must clearly and prominently disclose that these are not typical experiences and the consumer shouldn't expect to have similar results."
Dr.Barrett, of Quackwatch, says research does not support most of the claims on the tape. The most plausible claims, he believes, are those made for Bios Life 2. But it would take years of study to prove that taking the fiber supplement, without dietary or exercise changes, reduces cholesterol as sharply as claimed on the tape, says Barrett, who cowrote The Vitamin Pushers, a 1994 exposé of the supplement industry. Researchers would have to compare patients taking Bios Life 2 to patients not using the product, and they shouldn't know during the study which group is which.
Last month the FTC stopped four companies from publishing deceptive health claims on their Internet sites for miracle remedies, including two companies that were selling dietary supplements ostensibly to treat arthritis, cancer, and AIDS. In 1997 the agency fined Nu Skin International $1.5 million to settle charges that it had made unsubstantiated claims for several of its dietary supplements.
After initially defending the promotional claims on the tapes, Gold distanced RSI from them, saying that all tapes are produced and sold independently by distributors, who are not employed by the company. One problem with this disclaimer, however, is that the company's copyright symbol is printed on the "Doctors Speak Out" cassette. When asked if he thought the treatment claims on the tape were consistent with federal rules, he hedged. "I can't answer that specifically," he said. "I imagine [the people on the tape] are giving their own personal testimonials based on their own experiences. That would not necessarily indicate that that experience would be had by everyone."
But Cleland said those arguments don't get Rexall Showcase off the hook. "The company cannot make representations through testimonials that it couldn't make directly itself," he says. "Generally the parent company is liable for representations to sell their products that they know or should know are being made, particularly if they take no action to police their distributors."
Dr.Leonard is so impressed with the benefits of Rexall products that she isn't willing to wait for scientific evidence and believes she's on solid ethical ground in promoting them to her patients. But money is also very much on her mind. "The bottom line is that network marketing allows doctors to practice the way we want, to spend more time with our patients, and to have the lifestyle we want," she explained.
Robert FitzPatrick, however, fears that Leonard and her colleagues are jeopardizing something precious in the pursuit of wealth. "What these doctors are offering you isn't just vitamin pills but a business for you to get into," he says. "When you realize that your doctor is looking at you altogether differently than you wanted, as someone who has a good network that could be enrolled, it will change your relationship to that doctor drastically."
Flip Lechner, Leonard's patient, suffered a second heart attack earlier this month -- three weeks after starting on Rexall Showcase products. Her cardiologist took her off all dietary supplements so there would be no possible harmful interactions with her prescription drugs. Shortly after leaving the hospital, she told New Times that she plans to resume her Rexall supplements once her condition stabilizes and her cardiologist tells her it's OK.