Maya Abashidze

When bad science is a recipe for business success

From unproven cancer treatments to supplements for hormonal imbalance, some CEOs and business leaders have taken advantage of promoting a variety of pseudohealth cures

Alisa Vitti | Flo Living

By Caitlin Thompson

Alisa Vitti, the founder and CEO of the women’s lifestyle company Flo Living, often starts her public appearances with the same anecdote. Years ago, she was over 200 pounds, with terrible acne. She only had her period a few times a year. 

Vitti’s story concentrates on her diagnosis with polycystic ovarian syndrome, a condition related to an imbalance of reproductive hormones. Dissatisfied with standard treatment options, such as birth control pills, Vitti went in a different direction. She developed a diet regimen that she says restored her hormonal health. It involves eating certain foods at specific stages in the menstrual cycle, like asparagus during the ovulatory phase and kelp during the menstrual phase. 

Vitti has turned this plan into a booming business. She has written two books, has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, spoken at SxSW and been profiled by the New York Times. Flo Living has over 122,000 Instagram followers and its founder regularly shares her philosophy with thousands of Facebook Live and YouTube viewers.

“If we can become fluent in the language of our biochemistry,” she said in a 2011 Ted Talk which has been viewed over 1.2 million times on YouTube, “then we can have access to an infinite source of energy, and vitality, and clarity, and unwavering purpose.” 

Vitti created — and trademarked — the concept of “cycle syncing,” in which individuals coordinate their diet and lifestyle with their menstrual phases. Flo Living’s membership programs cost almost $300 a year.

According to Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Portland, Oregon, healthy eating and exercise can decrease bloating and offer some benefit to women with polycystic ovarian syndrome, but cycle syncing? 

“She’s totally overcomplicating it,” she told me. “It’s not to the degree of, ‘This week you have to eat this and this week you have to eat that.’ That’s just silly.”

Flo Living also sells an array of supplements, which cost between $41 to $129 a month. 

“There’s no data to support supplements for the vast majority of people, unless you have a true nutrient deficiency,” Lincoln added. “To make it even more niche and specific to your cycle is predatory and not based on good data.” 

The website does carry a disclaimer about its products: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

Vitti wrote in a statement to Coda Story: “Flo Living is dedicated to creating programs and products that make navigating hormonal challenges easier for women. My work is supported and guided by respected research. Any assertions to the contrary are untrue.”

Joseph Mercola | Mercola.com 

By Masho Lomashvili

Before founding one the world’s biggest natural health websites, Dr. Joseph Mercola trained as an osteopath. In 1997, he created a blog where he began to outline his problems with the pharmaceutical industry. He advocated doctors spend more time with patients to help them heal and recommended a diet of unprocessed foods, along with plenty of exercise. Then he launched an online store and started to promote supplements, vitamins, protein powders and alternative treatments — including his own line of branded tanning beds to build up stores of vitamin D.

As countries around the world began to roll out Covid vaccines, Mercola was peddling misinformation in articles on Mercola.com with titles such as “Covid-19 ‘Vaccines’ May Destroy the Lives of Millions” and “How COVID-19 Vaccine Can Destroy Your Immune System.”

In October 2020, the Center for Countering Digital Hate infiltrated a meeting attended by Mercola, other alternative health entrepreneurs, and a number of conspiracy theorists. At the gathering, plans were drawn up to sow fear and distrust in vaccination campaigns using Facebook pages, WhatsApp groups, YouTube channels and Twitter and Instagram accounts. 

In addition to raising doubt and confusion about vaccines, Mercola offers his own alternative treatments for Covid-19. Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration instructed Mercola.com to stop selling products falsely described as preventing or treating the coronavirus.

“Failure to adequately correct any violations may result in legal action, including, without limitation, seizure and injunction.”

But Mercola’s biggest contribution to the anti-vaccination movement is financial. Over the past decade, he has given out a total of $4 million to the movement. That figure includes more than $2.9 million to the US-based National Vaccine Information Center, one of the most prominent U.S. anti-vaccine groups, which accounts for approximately 40% of the organization’s funding. 

Followers of Mercola view him as a dissident voice, bravely standing up to Big Pharma and a corrupt, profit-driven medical establishment. In reality, though, he has made a fortune from his products. According to the Washington Post, his net worth is “in excess of $100 million.” 

Mercola.com responded to a request for clarification on Mercola’s views on Covid-19 with a statement from an editor: “Dr. Mercola is a published author in peer reviewed medical literature demonstrating the clear link between vitamin D deficiency and severe cases of Covid-19. He will continue to express his professional opinions and defend his freedom of speech.”

Ty and Charlene Bollinger | The Truth About Cancer 

By Isobel Cockerell

While President Donald Trump told his supporters to march on the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on January 6, Ty and Charlene Bollinger were holding their own anti-science MAGA Freedom Rally, just a few minutes away. The event featured a number of speakers, including Mikki Willis, the producer of the infamous “Plandemic” conspiracy documentary, prominent anti-vaccine activist Del Bigtree, and disgraced former Trump aides Roger Stone and George Papadopoulos. 

This foray into politics is a recent development for the couple. Ty Bollinger, a former bodybuilder, and his wife Charlene, an ex-model, live in a $1.5 million mansion in Tennessee and have, over the past 15 years, built an empire peddling unproven cancer treatments.  

They believe that chemotherapy is “poison.” Their YouTube channel — which has amassed more than 22 million views — features numerous videos in which they speak to people who treat cancer with everything from essential oils, vitamin C injections and juicing to something called vibrational therapy, which supposedly uses “electric frequencies” and “positive energy” to target tumor cells. 

A recent post on their website, titled “30+ Natural Alternatives to Consider Before Chemotherapy,” states that “conventional doctors create a false sense of urgency” and suggests that readers experiment with coffee enemas and pseudoscientific ozone therapy before seeking hospital treatment. 

When asked about the moral implications of advising people not to undergo chemotherapy, the Bollingers responded that they “have never told people not to do chemo.”

“Anyone with cancer is vulnerable to snake-oil. Although survival rates have never been better, cancer is still a frightening word,” said David Robert Grimes, an Irish cancer researcher and campaigner against medical misinformation. “In those circumstances, even the most sober-headed realist can be taken in by those who promise miraculous cures with no side-effects.” 

In response to a request for comment, the Bollingers told Coda Story in an emailed statement: “We are not ‘anti-science’ at all. That’s a pejorative term that is used to discredit someone’s position without really saying anything or giving details about why the position is wrong. The truth is we are pro-science and pro-choice when it comes to cancer treatments and vaccines, so the ‘anti-science’ allegation is totally false.” In the same statement, the Bollingers also confirmed that they didn’t think the pandemic was real. 

Their online store — which features the headline “Cancer does not have to be a death sentence” — sells a variety of products, including turmeric and hemp extracts, a $2,495 “hydrogen water” machine and an infrared sauna for $949. Customers can also buy DVD box sets of Ty Bollinger’s documentary series for $497 and one titled “The Truth About Pet Cancer” for $149. 

When asked to respond to suggestions that they are taking advantage of sick and vulnerable people for profit, the Bollingers said: “We give free DVDs and books to anyone who asks for them. We are trying to help them, not prey on them.”

Michael Kelly | Praesidium Life

By Mariam Kiparoidze

Spurred on by a recent boom in conspiracy theories that link 5G communications technology to a host of medical conditions, numerous devices are being sold online to “protect” individuals from the allegedly detrimental effects of electromagnetic radiation. Examples range from vastly overpriced USB sticks to wristbands and hats. Now, the New Zealand-based naturopath Michael Kelly is planning to add a new nutritional supplement to the list. 

“Coming Soon. Praesidium — the natural solution to electromagnetic radiation,” says the homepage of the supplement Praesidium, under a photograph of a black bottle with the product’s logo and the words “Swiss Made” printed on it.

There is broad consensus among scientists that the health risks of 5G are, at worst, negligible. However, Kelly has a record of questionable scientific judgement. He runs a health and beauty clinic called The Health Centre, in Auckland, which advocates fighting cancer with immunotherapy and a ketogenic diet “to starve” tumors. He is also chairman of the populist political party Advance New Zealand, which came under fire for spreading misinformation about mandatory vaccines throughout its election campaigning last year. He co-founded the company Praesidium Life last year with former joint party leader Jami-Lee Ross. 

Kelly is also involved in an associated website named Natural Solutions, which hawks a range of products that supposedly offer natural solutions to serious medical conditions. Among them is the protein GcMAF, a purported miracle cure for cancer, HIV and autism that is not licensed for medical use in a number of countries, including the U.K. and the United States.

Like several of the products sold by Natural Solutions, Praesidium was developed by Dr. Marco Ruggiero, an Italian microbiologist who in the course of his career has promoted a variety of pseudoscientific theories, including that AIDS is not linked to HIV infection. He was also behind another widely derided supplement, marketed under the name Immortalis, which promised to extend life to an “unimaginable” length. 

Kelly’s company, Natural Solutions, did not respond to repeated requests for comment about his businesses and the science behind Praesidium.

Oleg Epstein | Materia Medica Holding

By Katia Patin

In nearly every Russian pharmacy you can find at least a few treatments manufactured by Materia Medica Holding. Founded in the early 1990s by Oleg Epstein, the company prides itself on being the first to mass produce homeopathic remedies domestically. From supposedly antiviral pills to purported cures for alcoholism — and even a new “treatment” in development for HIV — Materia Medica has it covered.

However, most of its products have few active ingredients and some are simply sugar pills, according to biologist Aleksander Panchin who sits on the Russian Academy of Science’s commission to fight fake science. Founded in 1999 to expose pseudoscience, the commission also gives out annual “anti-awards,” which name and shame individuals and organizations promoting unscientific research or treatments. Epstein is a three-time winner.

Epstein, however, is also a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Nominated in 2015, he has held on to his status despite the academy writing in a memorandum that the theoretical basis for many of his treatments — a concept he has referred to as “released activity” — is pseudoscience. The anti-science commission has no legislative powers, so Epstein’s pills are still officially registered as medicine by the Ministry of Health. In 2018, members of the commission named Materia Medica “the most harmful fake science project in recent years.” Epstein took his colleagues at the Academy to court, suing for defamation which ended in a settlement.

“Released activity” involves the use of highly diluted substances. Panchin has described Epstein’s supposedly “new” methods as a “rebranding” of homeopathy, which relies on similar principles. Still, Russian state media outlets regularly run stories about Materia Medica’s research, with no mention of the Academy of Science’s statements.

Epstein was born in 1962 in Khabarovsk, a region in the Russian Far East. His father, Ilya Epstein, was the director of an addiction center and was known for treating alcohol-dependent individuals with hypnosis. Epstein studied pharmacology in Tomsk and dedicated most of his career to homeopathy. In 2005 he was awarded a prestigious Russian Federation’s prize in the field of science and technology. By 2016, Materia Medica was bringing in more than $120 million a year in revenue.

Today the company’s website states that it is working to “discover, develop and make available highly effective and safe drugs,” with a global presence from Turkmenistan to Myanmar to Mexico. 

Epstein and Materia Medica did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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