September 25, 2023

On a Friday afternoon in July, as many New Yorkers fled the scorching metropolis streets, a few dozen out-of-towners descended on Occasions Sq.. They got here bearing gold letter balloons spelling out LFVN, the inventory image for LifeVantage, the corporate they’d come to advertise, and foam cutouts of its navy blue complement bottles. LifeVantage’s chief govt officer, Steve Fife, rang the Nasdaq alternate’s closing bell, a celebration of the Utah-based firm’s new merchandise and rewards applications. Displayed on the facet of the seven-story Nasdaq constructing have been commercials selling the corporate’s dietary dietary supplements and their energy to “optimize well being.”

At first look, LifeVantage, price some $84 million, appears decidedly mainstream. It boasts plaudits from Nasdaq, has blue-chip traders like Constancy and BlackRock, and Erin Brockovich, the long-lasting crusader for company accountability, sits on its board of administrators. Its merchandise are extensively accessible; a bottle of its principal complement goes for round $56 on Amazon.

However in interviews with LifeVantage distributors, executives, and former scientists, in addition to in courtroom filings, paperwork obtained via data requests, and on-line materials, a sample emerged in the way in which the corporate and its representatives have sought to straddle the mainstream and the perimeter.

LifeVantage and a few of its distributors promote — and in lots of instances, distort — scientific proof to tout the advantages of the merchandise they’re promoting. Whereas that is likely to be frequent amongst complement corporations, what has specialists and a few staff uniquely involved is how LifeVantage has capitalized on conspiracist fascinated by Covid-19 and the broader well being care system to attract prospects and sellers wanting to withstand mainstream drugs altogether.

“Don’t be afraid to stand up and go along with what you already know,” Erin Brockovich informed a crowd of 5,000 elite LifeVantage distributors at a 2019 gathering, alluding to her high-profile struggle to carry a fuel firm to account for polluting groundwater. “We’re lastly proudly owning ourselves and going, ‘Yeah, I don’t suppose so. That isn’t working for my well being — and let me please be in command of my very own well being and what I do know is going on to me.’”

However the sheen of educational science and Wall Avenue, and the emphasis on private wellness, has obscured what former staff say is a rising push inside LifeVantage’s large salesforce to undermine evidence-based drugs and promote shoddy science.

On the 2022 Well being Freedom Summit, an internet occasion that featured a lot of distinguished anti-vaccine advocates, two of the corporate’s distributors appeared onscreen to advertise Protandim. One, Andrea Ebert, went on to counsel, with out proof, that the complement may reverse what she characterised as dangerous results of the vaccines towards the coronavirus, utilizing speaking factors generally utilized by anti-vaccine teams to tout the complement.

“Perhaps you or the one you love have been coerced into getting this jab, and had severe and deep regrets, and are struggling health-wise from it,” she mentioned.

Nathalie Chevreau, a biochemist who served as a senior scientific researcher for LifeVantage from 2014 till 2019, informed STAT that distributors additionally routinely made inaccurate claims — together with, in some instances, that the merchandise might assist with most cancers — at company occasions.

“When the distributor[s] got here onstage and would begin speaking, typically my hair was standing up,” Chevreau mentioned. “We’d must go and cease them, and say ‘you can not say that.’”

Like a few of its rivals within the dietary complement house, LifeVantage makes use of a choreographed multi-level advertising operation, counting on some 54,000 lively unbiased distributors to recruit much more salespeople, promote its flagship complement, Protandim, and push product strains aimed toward weight reduction, skincare, and pets. In personal on-line gatherings, Fb teams, and Zoom classes, distributors are skilled to advertise Protandim’s purported capability to scale back oxygen-free radicals, and to counsel that scientific proof helps a broad spectrum of potential advantages.

“LifeVantage could be very pleased with the science that backs our merchandise,” Fife informed STAT, including: “Individuals need to take management of their very own future, bodily and financially.”

LifeVantage claims that Protandim will increase the exercise of the Nrf2 pathway, which produces antioxidants within the physique. Joseph M. McCord, a biochemist credited with inventing the Protandim compound who went on to function the corporate’s lead scientific officer, gave occasional talks to LifeVantage distributors describing how parts of the dietary supplements — reminiscent of plant extracts, like milk thistle or ashwagandha — may regulate a biochemical pathway by switching on specific genes.

“You could not have any thought what I simply mentioned,” McCord informed an viewers of elite distributors in 2010. “However you’ve got a job — you’ve got an obligation — to study what this implies.”

McCord co-authored round 17 printed research on LifeVantage merchandise. In some in vitro lab research, and in others utilizing mice, Protandim appeared to scale back oxidative stress, a measure of the presence of oxygen-free radicals or different reactive species. The research embrace one carried out below the auspices of the Nationwide Institute on Getting old, one of many Nationwide Institutes of Well being, printed within the peer-reviewed journal Getting old Cell in 2016. Amongst its findings: Protandim elevated the median lifespan of male mice by 7% — which the paper characterised as a “small however statistically vital” change that wasn’t seen in feminine mice.

In an interview, McCord famous that not all of the analysis was primarily funded by LifeVantage, and mentioned the research advised the Nrf2 pathway was a promising avenue for continued analysis and growth within the complement house.

However he acknowledged that few conclusions might be drawn about Protandim’s effectiveness in people, and that the long-term security in people has not been studied.

A handful of small-scale research have evaluated Protandim’s results in people; by the researchers’ own account, “outcomes have been blended.” A study of 29 adults printed in 2005 advised Protandim decreased measures of oxidative stress after a month, however lacked a placebo group. Another, printed in 2016, checked out 38 runners to see whether or not the complement improved their efficiency, or decreased a measure of oxidative stress, over a interval of 90 days, and located that it did neither. There isn’t a analysis demonstrating that lowering oxidative stress can enhance well being outcomes, although restricted research have linked oxidative stress to a variety of well being points.

But LifeVantage promotional supplies and distributor pitches are likely to spin these outcomes positively.

It’s not unusual for complement makers to make claims that elevate eyebrows. The Food and Drug Administration has the authority to manage dietary dietary supplements, however, not like medication and biologics, these compounds aren’t permitted for security and effectiveness earlier than they hit the market. When the FDA does crack down, it’s actually because issues have emerged. The Federal Commerce Fee has oversight of selling within the U.S., nevertheless it and the FDA face sisyphean duties in a ballooning trade the place promoting more and more takes place through personal channels.

Even with this latitude, LifeVantage has run afoul of regulators. Although its earlier incarnations date again to 1988, the corporate has existed in its present kind since 2005, when smaller complement makers merged to kind LifeVantage. It initially bought Protandim Nrf2 Synergizer via shops like GNC. Round a decade in the past, having shifted to a multi-level advertising mannequin, LifeVantage started to ramp up spurious claims concerning the energy of its pure compounds to halt or reverse results not solely of the growing old course of, however of situations together with most cancers and Alzheimer’s. These claims may need resonated with these in search of options to mainstream medical remedy, or who have been determined to deal with severe well being issues with few different choices.

However the claims have been in some instances false or wildly deceptive. In April 2017, the FDA warned LifeVantage to cease making claims associated to illness prevention or remedy. The CEO on the time, Darren Jensen, responded that “LifeVantage reaffirms its dedication to compliance and to not advertising its merchandise for the prevention or remedy of most cancers or another illness.”

Nonetheless, McCord informed STAT he has severe issues about how LifeVantage and a few of its representatives have recurrently twisted analysis to market merchandise. One of many causes he left LifeVantage in 2013, he mentioned, was its tendency to prioritize advertising issues over scientific ones. When LifeVantage remade itself as a multi-level advertising firm, this concern “went from unhealthy to worse,” he mentioned. “I assumed it was an inappropriate strategy to promote a reasonably severe product.”

Following the FDA warning letter, LifeVantage appeared to lean extra closely on disclaimers that its merchandise are “not supposed to diagnose, deal with, remedy or forestall any illness,” and instructed its distributors to do the identical.

In an announcement, a LifeVantage spokesperson wrote that the corporate “has a number of approaches to make sure that our Consultants” — the corporate’s time period for its distributors — “make authorized, truthful and never deceptive product claims,” together with a coverage that prohibits unauthorized private testimonials and “any declare that LifeVantage merchandise are helpful within the remedy, remedy, prognosis, mitigation or prevention of any illnesses or indicators or signs of illness.” The corporate works to teach its representatives and to take motion towards problematic pitches, the assertion mentioned.

And it famous that “our Consultants are unbiased contractors” who “typically problem our Insurance policies and Procedures.” In these instances, the assertion mentioned, “we take acceptable motion.”

However that hasn’t stopped some distributors from toeing the road of fact.

While they may comprise disclaimers, latest movies from distributors, together with these among the many firm’s elite ranks — who’ve recruited top-performing groups — routinely flout that decision for warning.

For instance, in a video posted on-line in November 2020, April Wagner, a distributor excessive up within the firm’s ranks, primarily addressing potential LifeVantage distributors, highlighted the purported advantages of merchandise together with a brand new formulation of Protandim.

“What when you might have the blood of a 20-year-old, or prolong your life by 7%?” Wagner requested.

Paul Coates, former director of the Workplace of Dietary Dietary supplements on the Nationwide Institutes of Well being, reviewed lots of the scientific research on Protandim, together with the one demonstrating a 7% improve in lifespan for male mice, and mentioned he discovered them to be largely nicely designed, if small in scope. However Coates additionally mentioned the corporate and its representatives recurrently went too far of their statements. “The claims usually are not supportable by this type of research,” he mentioned.

In inside conferences, distributors themselves have raised issues concerning the accuracy of data some representatives use to promote merchandise. In an April 2019 Zoom assembly, a recording of which was reviewed by STAT, led by Charlotte Venter, an elite distributor based mostly in Australia, sellers expressed alarm at what they characterised as inaccurate materials that had too typically crept into pitches, reminiscent of {that a} probiotic product might assist with gluten intolerance.

One distributor informed the group she anxious that sellers may “take a few of these issues as gospel after which go and duplicate that, not solely to their groups, however probably to prospects.”

Shortly after STAT contacted Venter to ask concerning the video, it was faraway from her YouTube channel.

By the time the pandemic hit, LifeVantage was poised to profit from worry and confusion round this new well being menace, in addition to a newly distant labor pool.

In a Might 2020 Instagram post, the corporate shared a line graph of its share value labeled “LifeVantage Inventory Throughout Quarantine,” a short-lived bump that noticed its inventory value rise from about $10 in March 2020 to upwards of $16. Textual content above the chart learn: “Stunned by what you see? We’re not.”

Although there was little proof to help claims they may push back or assist deal with Covid-19, dietary dietary supplements turned a gorgeous choice for these in search of treatments based on natural compounds, together with people in anti-vaccine circles and different teams who resist mainstream well being steering. The worldwide marketplace for dietary supplements grew 7.5% in 2021, ending that yr at almost $60 billion — a determine that dwarfed predictions issued earlier than the pandemic, in accordance with the Nutrition Business Journal.

LifeVantage is certainly one of a lot of complement makers which have these days gained traction with fringe alternative-health activists, who see its messaging round self-determinism as resonating with their specific issues, and as signaling an openness to unorthodox attitudes in the direction of well being.

The general public-health restrictions carried out to curb the consequences of Covid-19 catalyzed a rising variety of activists who make up the “health-freedom motion.” The motion champions the notion that people ought to make their very own selections about well being, even when these decisions contradict the consensus of medical doctors or public-health officers. And its members have long fought for a complement market freed from regulatory oversight.

These dynamics characterize a entrance in a bigger battle over fact, mentioned Thomas H. Murray, president emeritus on the Hastings Middle. The motion’s rhetoric is an echo, he mentioned, of “our incapability as a rustic to agree on who’s reliable and what’s true.”

These disagreements flared in the course of the pandemic, when even primary well being info turned a goal for skepticism or misinformation.

Fife, the LifeVantage CEO, mentioned the corporate was “very cautious” to not tie product launches to the pandemic.

However language in distributor pitches has invoked Protandim’s purported capability to restore harm from the virus, or supposed antagonistic results from the vaccines.

On-line, distributors have advised that Protandim might assist struggle off Covid-19. In a clip that Wagner, the elite distributor, posted to TikTok in September 2021, she holds a yellow caplet in a single hand and a Protandim bottle within the different, and urges viewers to strive “certainly one of these magic tablets” which have been “medically studied.” Protandim, Wagner mentioned, “will improve your glutathione by over 300% — glutathione is our grasp antioxidant, and there are even research on Google Scholar that present growing glutathione ranges will inhibit the Corona illness.” (The relevant papers look like surveys of beforehand printed literature — not medical research carried out for the reason that onset of the pandemic.)

“The concept these dietary supplements could be marketed in a approach that individuals have the next threat of utilizing these sham snake oil merchandise is outrageous,” mentioned Bryn Austin, professor within the division of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard’s T.H. Chan College of Public Well being. “If folks flip to dietary supplements marketed with claims of boosting immunity,” Austin mentioned, it’s probably they’re not following the proof on what would truly defend towards Covid-19.

Kelsey Brennan-Patrick, who owns a dance studio in Phoenixville, Pa. and has been a LifeVantage distributor for round six years, informed STAT that within the early days of the pandemic, “we have been all attempting to know and work out what this virus was.” She mentioned she was conscious that claims that Protandim might forestall or deal with sicknesses together with Covid-19 have been off-limits. However anecdotally, she’d heard that the complement may assist mitigate signs. (This isn’t supported by scientific proof.)

“It was exhausting for us, as an organization, as a result of we couldn’t talk it like that,” she defined, citing the corporate’s disclaimers round stopping or treating illness. “So we needed to be very compliant and simply sort of lead the horse to water.”

Ebert, the distributor who introduced on the Well being Freedom Summit, mentioned she was conscious of different sellers throughout the firm who shared her skepticism of public well being rules and vaccines, and who noticed the complement — which she has known as a “golden bullet” — as a step towards well being freedom.

She informed STAT she leads a group of round 100 distributors and isn’t against science, however questioned the motivations of well being officers who established vaccine mandates and the businesses that manufactured them — a typical anti-vaccine speaking level.

“Within the medical world, there’s science spelled with an ‘s,’” Ebert mentioned, “after which there’s science spelled with a greenback signal.” (Researchers have estimated that the vaccines, and the large marketing campaign to make them accessible to the general public, have saved as many as 3 million lives within the U.S. alone.)

In a follow-up message, Ebert informed STAT she couldn’t categorize the beliefs of different LifeVantage distributors, and reiterated that “we by no means declare to remedy, forestall or mitigate illness.”

With out large-scale managed research demonstrating Protandim truly helps folks, LifeVantage has needed to depend on a sequence of ever extra aggressive gross sales ways hinging on fragments of restricted findings.

Well being-freedom teams spent the peak of the pandemic stoking distrust as a fundraising ploy, and now courtroom new audiences for hawking merchandise and beliefs alike. An organization that claims its merchandise are backed by “science” — but stands to revenue as science deniers in its gross sales power tout them as a panacea of selection — harms customers, well being misinformation specialists mentioned, by pushing falsehoods together with capsules.

In the meantime, because it rings in a “strategic transformation,” together with a revamp of product choices, reminiscent of a brand new line of collagen merchandise, and distributor-compensation plans, LifeVantage can be in the hunt for recent scientific expertise. In a job posting presently stay on its web site, the corporate seeks a senior analysis scientist with a “business mindset.”

In spite of everything, it reads: “we’re within the enterprise of monetizing merchandise and concepts, not conducting analysis for the sake of analysis.”