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General in Vitamin Wars Battles Regulation With Zeal

July 02, 1994|ALAN C. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Gerald Kessler, founder of a dietary supplement company and a driving force behind the campaign to limit regulation of the industry, swears that there is "a worldwide conspiracy" to eliminate vitamins, minerals, amino acids and herbal products.

"This is going on in every country," Kessler said. "It is the pharmaceutical-medical combine trying to make sure they are not being threatened worldwide by inexpensive, non-patented dietary supplements that will prevent the onset of chronic disease."

Kessler, a 6-foot-7 man with a taste for the jugular, is executive director of the Nutritional Health Alliance, which represents supplement manufacturers, distributors and consumers. Organizers say the NHA has raised $750,000 from 14,000 donors since it started in 1992.

Some industry executives privately acknowledged that Kessler's zealotry and rhetorical excesses make them cringe. But he has made himself a major player in the high-profile battle to curtail the ability of the Food and Drug Administration and its congressional allies to regulate the $4-billion-a-year supplement industry.

Kessler has met often with FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler (no relation) and key members of Congress. He has crafted numerous mailings--he estimates the alliance has put out 6 million to 7 million pieces--giving consumers his highly charged view of the conflict and exhorting them to tell lawmakers to support industry-backed legislation.

"Don't let the FDA take your supplements away!" screamed one flyer. "The FDA wants to expand the war on drugs to include nutritional supplements," said another.

FDA officials and their supporters say Gerald Kessler is among those who have misled the public by claiming the agency intends to restrict access to these products. The FDA's real goal, they maintain, is to end deceptive, sometimes fraudulent, health claims.

Kessler's detractors say he has more at risk in the regulatory debate than other mainstream supplement makers. These detractors say he has a major stake in a company that makes some products whose very names suggest implicit health claims. He denied that assertion.

Kessler, 59, founded Nature's Plus, which sells about 350 supplement products, in the early 1970s. He retains controlling interest in its parent company, Natural Organics Inc., of Farmingdale, N.Y.

Nature's Plus products include the Immunizer Pak Program, a "powerful blend of ancient herbs (that is) a potent and effective immune booster formula," and Ultra Male, tablets containing dried bovine testes, prostate, liver, spleen and other body parts, along with Vitamin E and zinc.

Nature's Plus was one of four supplement companies charged with deceptive advertising last year by the New York City Consumer Affairs Department. The agency said the firms' product labels "prey on the fears and abuse the hopes of desperate people who have the AIDS virus."

The company was charged with violating the nation's only municipal law that makes it a deceptive trade practice to claim or imply that a product will improve the immune system, unless its labeling or advertising discloses its effect on a person who is HIV-positive, or states that it has not been proven to prevent or cure AIDS.

Kessler said the Immunizer Pak is intended for healthy individuals "who would like to have their immune system functioning at peak performance," not for people who are HIV-positive or who have AIDS. He said the company has not stated this on the label because any mention of a disease--even in a disclaimer--would classify a product as a drug under the law. The company is seeking FDA approval to add such a warning, he said.

Ultra Male contains animal tissues that are purported to strengthen the same organs in humans, a type of product that has a long and controversial history. Kessler said that the marketing of Ultra Male involves no implied health claim--such as boosting virility--and stresses that it is intended simply "to support a male's needs nutritionally."

Kessler said he retired as head of Natural Organics after assuming his NHA leadership role in 1992. But he is still listed as the parent company's chief executive by Standard & Poor's.

In any case, he said, he is not driven by financial gain.

"I made money in real estate that is more than enough for me to live on very comfortably for the rest of my life," he said. "Anybody who really knows me knows I am not motivated by money. I am motivated by (the) principle . . . that people have freedom and people have a right to make choices in their own lives."

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