WASHINGTON — Promoters of weight-reduction products, including those of Los Angeles-based Herbalife International, often make exaggerated claims for pills and powders that can pose serious health hazards, Senate investigators have concluded.
In a study to be released this morning, the staff of the Senate Governmental Affairs permanent investigations subcommittee says that four deaths since last November have been associated with Herbalife products.
Allegations of Fraud
In addition, the Food and Drug Administration has received 90 complaints of illnesses allegedly caused by Herbalife products as well as 32 allegations of fraud against the company, according to the staff report. Such a volume of complaints warrants more attention by the FDA to the side effects of "very low calorie" diet plans, investigators said.
Herbalife, the nation's largest distributor of weight-loss and nutrition products, says it has 800,000 independent distributors in the United States, Canada, Australia and Great Britain. Attempts to obtain comment Monday from Herbalife officers on the report's charges were unsuccessful.
Prepared as Introduction
The staff report, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, was prepared as an introduction to two days of Senate hearings on how major diet products are marketed. Mark Reynolds Hughes, Herbalife's founder and president, is among witnesses who have been subpoenaed.
Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), the subcommittee chairman, said that Herbalife and other weight-reduction plans amount to a multibillion-dollar industry. Some smaller marketing schemes, Roth said, involve "a variety of worthless products such as pills that promise to help you reduce while you sleep and creams that you rub in which are supposed to take fat off."
"These items reduce nothing but the pocketbooks of the consumers who use them," Roth said in a statement.
The subcommittee staff said that it had interviewed a number of persons who had had adverse reactions to Herbalife products, including nausea, dizziness, headaches, diarrhea and constipation, and that some Herbalife distributors had claimed the products could cure cancer. Herbalife officers insisted that the company does not support such medical claims but noted that the firm has little or no control over its independent distributors, according to the subcommittee staff.
Disclaimers in Small Print
The Senate staff report said that some promoters of low-calorie products fail to emphasize that their pills and milkshake-type powders are intended to be used only as part of an overall diet plan under medical supervision. To avoid enforcement actions by the Federal Trade Commission, such disclaimers often are carried in small print on the packages, it said--but the impression is left that the products themselves are responsible for the weight reduction.
Other promoters--but not Herbalife--market exotic products like plastic devices to be worn on the ear that touch acupuncture points and allegedly help suppress a person's appetite, the subcommittee report said.
The Senate hearings will be the latest in a series of government actions involving Herbalife. The FDA, based on a lengthy investigation, cited the company for six violations of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1982 but never issued any sanctions. Herbalife subsequently sued the FDA, alleging that the agency had engaged in a "widespread, even corrupt, trial-by-publicity campaign" against the firm. But Herbalife recently withdrew the suit.
Last November, Canada's Ministry of Health and Welfare cited Herbalife for 24 violations of the Canadian Food and Drug Act, and last March three agencies in California took similar action.
The state attorney general, the state Department of Health and the Santa Cruz County district attorney filed a civil lawsuit against Herbalife alleging that the company makes false medical claims about some of its products and employs an illegal pyramid-type scheme to market them.