In March of last year, Dr. Ben Carson, the conservative star considered a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, appeared in a video for Mannatech, Inc., a Texas-based medical supplement maker. Smiling into the camera, he extolled the benefits of the company’s “glyconutrient” products:
The wonderful thing about a company like Mannatech is that they recognize that when God made us, He gave us the right fuel. And that fuel was the right kind of healthy food. You know we live in a society that is very sophisticated, and sometimes we’re not able to achieve the original diet. And we have to alter our diet to fit our lifestyle. Many of the natural things are not included in our diet. Basically what the company is doing is trying to find a way to restore natural diet as a medicine or as a mechanism for maintaining health.
Mannatech has a long, checkered past, stretching back to its founding more than a decade before Carson began touting the company’s supplements. It was started by businessman Samuel L. Caster in late 1993, mere “months,” the Wall Street Journal later noted, before Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which greatly loosened restrictions on how supplement makers could market their products. Within a few years of its inception, the company was marketing a wide variety of “glyconutrient” products using many of the same tactics previously described in lawsuits against Eagle Shield, Caster’s first company.
In November 2004, the mother of a child with Tay-Sachs disease who died after being treated with Mannatech products filed suit against the company in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeking damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent misrepresentation, and conspiracy to commit fraud. The suit alleged that the Mannatech sales associate who “treated” the three-year-old had shared naked photos of the boy — provided by his mother as evidence of weight gain, with an understanding that they’d be kept confidential — with hundreds of people at a Mannatech demonstration seminar. The sales associate was further accused of authoring an article, in the Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association in August 1997, explicitly claiming that Mannatech’s supplements had improved the boy’s condition, even though the boy had, by that time, died. The suit also presented evidence that Mannatech was still using photographs of the boy in promotional materials on its website in March 2004, “with the clear inference that [the boy] was alive and doing well some seven years after his actual death.”
Williams adds that Carson won’t personally be answering any questions about his interactions with the company, “because that is the decision that has been made.”
In 2007, three years after Carson’s first dealings with Mannatech, Texas attorney general Greg Abbott sued the company and Caster, charging them with orchestrating an unlawful marketing scheme that exaggerated their products’ health benefits. The original petition in that case paints an ugly picture of Mannatech’s marketing practices. It charges that the company offered testimonials from individuals claiming that they’d used Mannatech products to overcome serious diseases and ailments, including autism, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and life-threatening heart conditions.
Separately, the suit alleges that the company sold a CD entitled “Back from the Brink” that “provided example after example of how ‘glyconutrients’ (i.e., Mannatech’s products) cured, treated, or mitigated diseases including but not limited to toxic shock syndrome, heart failure, asthma, arthritis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Attention Deficit Disorder, and lung inflammation.”
The complaint from Abbott’s office further suggested that the company had used careful wording in a scheme to avoid liability, instructing their sales force “not to refer to Mannatech’s products by name when making certain claims, but instead [to] refer to them generically as ‘glyconutrients,’” before “direct[ing] the customer to the ‘only company that makes these patented glyconutrients’ — Mannatech.”
A 20/20 investigative report from the same year revealed a similar pattern, finding that Mannatech sales associates were hawking the company’s signature drug, Ambrotose, which “costs at least $200 a month,” as “a miracle cure that could fix a broad range of diseases, from cancer to multiple sclerosis and AIDS.”
“This was a particularly egregious case of false advertising,” said Christine Mann, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. “It’s rare for us to see a dietary-supplement manufacturer claim a particular product cures cancer, autism, or any number of retractable or incurable diseases. We do see all kinds of claims being made in the supplement industry, but in many cases we find manufacturers do not know the rules and will work with us to make sure they get into compliance with the applicable laws.”
In 2009, the state of Texas reached an agreement resolving the lawsuit against Mannatech, Inc., and Caster; under the settlement, Mannatech paid $4 million in restitution to Texas customers while admitting no wrongdoing, and Caster agreed to a $1 million civil penalty and a five-year ban on serving as an officer, director, or employee of the company. The agreement further decreed that Mannatech employees were prohibited from saying “directly or indirectly” that their products can “cure, treat, mitigate or prevent any disease,” and banned the use of customers’ testimonials making those claims.
Yet Carson’s interactions with the company continued until at least March 2014, almost five years after the suit was settled, and a decade after the company’s marketing practices had first begun to come into question. That month, about a week before the online video was posted, Carson shot a PBS special in which he discusses nutrition, again praising “glyconutrients” in generic language similar to the video’s:
We aren’t necessarily getting the nutritional value that we need. So as I analyzed all those things, I began to realize that that was a significant portion of my problem. And I started to try to figure out, how do you get that supplementation? Well, I became particularly interested in glycoscience, glyconutrients. These things are in your apples, your bananas and beets and everything, you know, that’s growing, but by the time we get them, they frequently are gone. And I discovered you can actually concentrate those in powders and pills and things like that. And there are a number of different types of vitamins and supplements that are there. I advise people to actually look into this.
When asked for comment, Mannatech initially issued a statement declaring, “Dr. Carson is not a spokesperson or endorser of Mannatech.” But the company’s website touts Carson in connection with its products, and its homepage features a short video of Carson, promoting the special: “On March 11, Dr. Ben Carson, world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon, as well as humanitarian and best-selling author, conducted an informational presentation on PBS regarding brain health and referencing glyconutrients.” The site emphasizes that “Mannatech Incorporated is not a sponsor of ‘The Missing Link — The Science of Brain Health with Dr. Ben Carson’ featured on PBS.”
After inquiries from National Review Online, a statement from the company later clarified that “a group of Mannatech independent distributors, not Mannatech Incorporated, sponsored Dr. Carson to be the sole speaker on a PBS special.” The special has aired several times, including January 4 of this year, on Maryland Public Television.
In a video on the company’s site, Ray Robbins, a co-founder of the company, says in a speech previewing the PBS special, “I wrote him a thank-you letter yesterday, saying, ‘Dr. Carson, it’s happening. This is being aired. I just can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate the fact you recognize who and what we are, what glyconutritionals are, and you chose to get up on a soapbox with us.’ And he did such an extraordinary job, you are going to love this show.”
When asked about the special, Williams takes a different view: “I set up the PBS special, and what they wanted us to do and what we ended up doing, it did not happen,” he says. “We realized early on there was a problem. They wanted us to do a second video. Dr. Carson did not want to do it in the beginning. It was something that I pitched as his business manager because of the person that asked us to do it. But when we saw what they were asking us to do, we backed away from it. That was my first encounter with Mannatech as his business manager.” Asked whether Carson was making efforts to get Mannatech to stop using Dr. Carson in its video and on its website, Williams responded, “Our lawyers are already on top of that.”
But Mannatech spokesman Mike Crouch says the company has not heard from Williams or any lawyer representing Carson. And when pressed, the company issued a short statement implying that Carson remained loyal to its products: “We appreciate his support and value his positive feedback as a satisfied customer.”
Williams strongly suggests otherwise. “Sometimes you get involved with people who have not the best of intentions,” he says. “You learn from it and move on. It’s a business. They’re using him to publicize their website, to monetize it, get people to believe that this is endorsed by Dr. Carson. The facts don’t match the reality of what they’re promoting to their audience. These things have their own biology and a way of solving themselves. It’s not our job to go out and say that ‘Mannatech is a bad company, Mannatech exploited Dr. Carson.’ What we have to do is a better job in vetting these companies that approach. We get this all the time.”
Last week, Carson told Newsmax TV he will make a decision on whether or not to run for president “in a few months.”
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.