As conservative activist Ben Carson mulls a presidential run, we’re not surprised to start seeing stories like this one from the National Review: “Ben Carson’s Troubling Connection.”
Jim Geraghty describes in detail the close ties between Carson and Mannatech, a medical supplement company that misleadingly markets its products to people with diseases such as Tay-Sachs, autism, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and ALS. At one point, the company even boasted of a “miracle cure” for AIDS and cancer.
If Carson runs, he won’t be the only 2016 Republican candidate with a record of boosting quack medical companies. Mike Huckabee once emailed his fans a sponsored message from a company promising remedies to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and another endorsing a biblical cancer cure from the Bible.
In March of last year, Dr. Ben Carson, the conservative star considered a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, appeared in a video for Mannatech, Inc., a Texas-based medical supplement maker. Smiling into the camera, he extolled the benefits of the company’s “glyconutrient”products:
The wonderful thing about a company like Mannatech is that they recognize that when God made us, He gave us the right fuel. And that fuel was the right kind of healthy food. You know we live in a society that is very sophisticated, and sometimes we’re not able to achieve the original diet. And we have to alter our diet to fit our lifestyle. Many of the natural things are not included in our diet. 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’s interactions with Mannatech, a nutritional-supplement company based in suburban Dallas, date back to 2004, when he was a speaker at the company’s annual conferences, MannaFest and MannaQuest. He also spoke at Mannatech conferences in 2011 and 2013, and spoke about “glyconutrients” in a PBS special as recently as last year.
Mannatech has a long, checkered past, stretching back to its founding more than a decade before Carson began touting the company’s supplements. It was started by businessman Samuel L. Caster in late 1993, mere “months,” the Wall Street Journal later noted, before Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which greatly loosened restrictions on how supplement makers could market their products. Within a few years of its inception, the company was marketing a wide variety of “glyconutrient” products using many of the same tactics previously described in lawsuits against Eagle Shield, Caster’s first company.
In 2007, three years after Carson’s first dealings with Mannatech, Texas attorney general Greg Abbott sued the company and Caster, charging them with orchestrating an unlawful marketing scheme that exaggerated their products’ health benefits. The original petition in that case paints an ugly picture of Mannatech’s marketing practices. It charges that the company offered testimonials from individuals claiming that they’d used Mannatech products to overcome serious diseases and ailments, including autism, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and life-threatening heart conditions.
Separately, the suit alleges that the company sold a CD entitled “Back from the Brink” that “provided example after example of how ‘glyconutrients’ (i.e., Mannatech’s products) cured, treated, or mitigated diseases including but not limited to toxic shock syndrome, heart failure, asthma, arthritis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Attention Deficit Disorder, and lung inflammation.”
The complaint from Abbott’s office further suggested that the company had used careful wording in a scheme to avoid liability, instructing their sales force “not to refer to Mannatech’s products by name when making certain claims, but instead [to] refer to them generically as ‘glyconutrients,’” before “direct[ing] the customer to the ‘only company that makes these patented glyconutrients’ — Mannatech.”
A 20/20 investigative report from the same year revealed a similar pattern, finding that Mannatech sales associates were hawking the company’s signature drug, Ambrotose, which “costs at least $200 a month,” as “a miracle cure that could fix a broad range of diseases, from cancer to multiple sclerosis and AIDS.”
In 2009, the state of Texas reached an agreement resolving the lawsuit against Mannatech, Inc., and Caster; under the settlement, Mannatech paid $4 million in restitution to Texas customers while admitting no wrongdoing, and Caster agreed to a $1 million civil penalty and a five-year ban on serving as an officer, director, or employee of the company. The agreement further decreed that Mannatech employees were prohibited from saying “directly or indirectly” that their products can “cure, treat, mitigate or prevent any disease,” and banned the use of customers’ testimonials making those claims.
Yet Carson’s interactions with the company continued until at least March 2014, almost five years after the suit was settled, and a decade after the company’s marketing practices had first begun to come into question. That month, about a week before the online video was posted, Carson shot a PBS special in which he discusses nutrition, again praising “glyconutrients” in generic language similar to the video’s:
We aren’t necessarily getting the nutritional value that we need. So as I analyzed all those things, I began to realize that that was a significant portion of my problem. And I started to try to figure out, how do you get that supplementation? Well, I became particularly interested in glycoscience, glyconutrients. These things are in your apples, your bananas and beets and everything, you know, that’s growing, but by the time we get them, they frequently are gone. And I discovered you can actually concentrate those in powders and pills and things like that. And there are a number of different types of vitamins and supplements that are there. I advise people to actually look into this.
When asked for comment, Mannatech initially issued a statement declaring, “Dr. Carson is not a spokesperson or endorser of Mannatech.” But the company’s website touts Carson in connection with its products, and its homepage features a short video of Carson, promoting the special: “On March 11, Dr. Ben Carson, world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon, as well as humanitarian and best-selling author, conducted an informational presentation on PBS regarding brain health and referencing glyconutrients.” The site emphasizes that “Mannatech Incorporated is not a sponsor of ‘The Missing Link — The Science of Brain Health with Dr. Ben Carson’ featured on PBS.”