Back when he still had a radio show, U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis sold Youngevity nutritional supplements that the multi-level marketing company claims fight conditions such as cancer, autism and diabetes.
Lewis’s supplement sales career is drawing new scrutiny as he enters the homestretch in his race for the U.S. Senate against Democratic Sen. Tina Smith.
Some scientists call Youngevity’s medical claims hogwash, while business experts say it shares the characteristics of a pyramid scheme as it hawks everything from vitamins to dog shampoo.
Janet Helm, a nutritionist and registered dietitian who writes frequently about diet myths, nutrition trends and misinformation, has said of Youngevity “The whole basis of the products and the claims are pseudoscience.”
The California company employs multi-level marketing — a controversial technique used by companies like Amway and Mary Kay in which salespeople make money on the sales of every person they recruit to sell the product. Some make more on finding new salespeople than selling products, while less successful salespeople wind up with piles of unsold goods and no profits after spending bundles on products and training materials.
Lewis, who was a one-term Republican congressman representing the 2nd District before losing his reelection bid in 2018, did not respond to requests for comment.
He promoted the nutritional supplements while hosting his nationally syndicated conservative radio talk show, the “Jason Lewis Show,” which aired from 2009 to 2014.
For $10, listeners could join the “Jason Lewis Team” and buy Youngevity products through Lewis “at wholesale prices.”
Lewis’s website promised it was a “ground-breaking business that can help you achieve financial success and work alongside other like-minded, freedom-loving individuals.”
“You don’t need to depend on global corporations or the government for your family’s financial needs,” the website said, urging listeners to instead work with Lewis and his wife on an independent business and “spend less time in a government run health care system.”
In commercials, Lewis said people could “feel like America’s Mr. Right” if they used the products.
The company’s claims recently ran afoul of government regulators.
In June, the Federal Trade Commission warned Youngevity and five other companies that sell dietary supplements, shakes and other products to stop unlawfully advertising that its products treat or prevent COVID-19 with no scientific evidence they work.
Youngevity did not respond to a request for comment, but has said its founder is merely extending to humans his discoveries in the 1970s between nutritional deficiencies in animals and disease. Its mission, the company has said, to educate the public about proper nutrition.
Youngevity was founded by Joel Wallach, who worked as a veterinarian for more than 40 years before becoming a naturopathic doctor in 1982. Naturopathy is alternative medicine based on the theory that diseases can be successfully treated or prevented without the use of drugs, but instead through diet, exercise and massage — and in Wallach’s case, supplements.
Supplements and vitamins do not require approval from the Federal Drug Administration; as far as the government is concerned, they’re safe until proven otherwise.
Wallach has claimed to be able to cure muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis, according to Slate. He wrote in a book called Black Gene Lies: Slave Quarter Cures that deficiencies of trace elements cause some diseases to disproportionately impact Black Americans, which can be “overcome” with a nutritional supplement program and herbal remedies. He has also said “Alzheimer’s is a physician-caused disease.”
Youngevity has claimed its products can treat, cure, mitigate and/or prevent cancer, diabetes, fibromyalgia, autism, ADHD, anxiety, MS and many more diseases and disorders, according to truthinadvertising.
With respect to its business model, a Youngevity saleswoman referred to the company’s structure as a “pyramid scheme thing” in a corporate video, as reported on “Last Week Tonight” by John Oliver in 2016.
Lewis is out of the Youngevity game these days, but he recently shared some medical advice — following President Donald Trump’s lead in pushing hydroxychloroquine as a treatment of COVID-19. The National Institutes of Health stopped clinical trials of the malarial drug in June because it was deemed unlikely to be effective.
Lewis is not alone among right wing radio and TV personalities selling miracle cures with dubious scientific backing.
As the Washington Post reported, Fox News personality and two-time Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was criticized for appearing in a “Diabetes Solution Kit” infomercial that made medical recommendations to diabetics that are not supported by the American Diabetes Association.
Conspiracy theorist and far-right radio show host Alex Jones also sells Youngevity and other products, saying of the supplement, “The only side effect is that I’m crazed now. Now I can jog eight miles instead of four miles.”
Trump has also tried his hand in the supplements business; he licensed the Trump Network name to Ideal Health in 2009 to pump up its supplement sales, but the company hit hard times a few years later and was sold.
When it comes to multi-level marketing, there’s none bigger than U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is married to the former president of Amway, Dick DeVos, son of Amway’s founder.
Bill Keep, a marketing professor who researches multi-level marketing companies at The College of New Jersey, cited the relationship between sales and politics as a potential cause for all the politicos in the multi-level marketing and supplements industry.
Because politics is really a sales game, Keep said, he’s not surprised that politicians might be drawn to multi-level marketing schemes, which often require a hardcore sales attitude reminiscent of Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross.
Stacy Bosley, a Hamline University economist who studies pyramid schemes and the social and economic factors that influence participation in them, became interested in pyramid schemes after seeing family members lose a lot of money on them in the 1990s.
She declined to speculate on Youngevity specifically.
Bosley said if a company’s sales agents focus more on recruiting salespeople than selling the product, that’s a big red flag.
“Then you should walk away,” she said.
And if a multi-level marketing company promises you’ll make big bucks, that’s also a bad sign. Most people lose money, Bosley said.
The FTC reiterated in its June letter to Youngevity that the compensation structure of multi-level marketing “may create incentives for its participants to make certain representations to current or prospective participants.”
Keep, the marketing professor, said the problem isn’t so much that supplements and other products sold by multilevel marketing companies don’t do anything. Rather, the companies often exaggerate the benefits in vague terms that are difficult to disprove, and charge too much for products, with very high profit margins.
“It’s an industry that has operated in the shadows for quite a few decades,” he said.