Thursday, May 04, 2006

Terry Polevoy's comments on Herbal Magic's ad

On November 3, 2005 I heard from the current owner of Herbal Magic's weight loss franchise empire from his London office. I had complained about an advertisement that was previously posted in The Record's Business Spotlight section about seven years ago. Was he calling about that web site?

It was obvious to me that he was not interested in that old site. It so happens that he had purchased the company a few years ago and seemed to have taken offense because I had sent a complaint to some people who regulate health professions in Ontario. It was in response to a huge colourful advertisement that made it into the Waterloo Chronicle on November 2, 2005. Apparently it was inserted without being reviewed by the head office.

There are statements in that advertisement which are clearly meant to deceive the public.

This statement is absurd at face value:

"Specialists in pharmacy and naturopathic medicine"

Pharmacy is a regulated health profession in Ontario and in all other Provinces and Territories across Canada. Naturopathic medicine is governed by the Board of Drugless Practitioners - Naturopathy in Ontario. Nobody has the right to use those words to advertise services under Provincial Acts. There are no naturopathic doctors or pharmacist in their stores. They have 300 stores and only two people listed on their web site as advisors who claim to be practicing in areas that are considered either mainstream or alternative medicine.

What happened way back in 1996 when the company first started in London, Ontario? Who advised the customers in their stores about serious health problems? I believe it was a teacher and a business person who started the company. They were not health professionals. Who advised them about the risks of using unproved and unregulated herbs or amino acids, or chromium to lose weight or treat diabetes?

In addition, the ad states that they have:

"Superior natural herbal supplements"

And they use a "seal", (a white circle in this advertisement), that makes the claims that they have the approval of the Natural Health Products Directorate. They place this "seal" right after the line above. The NHPD does not rate things as "superior". It takes very little to have the NHPD approve a product, and it does not guarantee their safety. The NHPD is swamped right now with a backlog of over 10,000 products that they have not even looked at.

In fact, most of the products made for Herbal Magic by at least one of their manufacturers, Douglas Laboratories from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania were given a DIN (Drug Identification Number) years ago by the old version of Health Canada. To check on the other companies that have had their products given registration numbers by the NHPD click here.

Douglas has been selling nutraceuticals to chiropractors, and other health professionals for decades. As far as I can tell, none of the claims for their herbal or weight loss products have been accepted as valid by the FDA. You can see for yourself by going to their Weight Loss Protocols (Adobe .pdf format), to see the kind of stuff that they have promoted.

For more details about Douglas Laboratories and the promotion of their own products
click here for their Directive's page. It's frightening that this company still promotes their products to health professionals, like chiropractors and naturopaths, through deceptive tests such as "hair analysis", etc. One of their programs is called theh "Merkle Patient Testing & Analysis Program". It was devised by a chiropractor, Dr. Van D. Merkle, who was a user and promoter of their products to his patients. You can check out one his self-promoting web sites called, where he teaches others to use the same bogus techniques. In fact, Merkle says much more on his own Mastering Blood Analysis web site in Dayton, Ohio.

Douglas Labs refer to it as the MBA (Merkle Blood Analysis) program and it claims that:

[It] is state of the art computerized laboratory analysis providing a highly advanced objective medical analysis, taking into account many factors including medications, patient symptoms, blood testing, hair analysis etc. producing a report that includes vitamin and dietary recommendations that is patient and doctor friendly even those new to laboratory analysis."

Douglas Laboratories has a professional brochure that describes in detail what their company is all about, and it is called Douglas Capabilities.

Another statement in the Herbal Magic ad which is dubious at best:

"Councillors, you meet one on one with our trained certified staff"

Unfortunately, this is deceptive as well. What are the training programs that they offer their staff, and what does "certififation" really mean? Only the College of Dieticians of Ontario can legally provide care for dietary problems related to health problems. There is no other legal certification anywhere in Canada, despite the claims made by others who flaunt their "diplomas" or "certificates" as if its the real thing. Most herbal companies in Canada hire their employees with little or no health background and then train them to sell their programs to anyone who walks through the door.

Herbal Magic's owner insisted that their "training program" was top of the heap, and it seemed to involve the use of a database on CD-ROMs full of information about their products.

One of the main problems is the fact that companies like Herbal Magic have never published a single paper on their success rate. How they could make the following statement is amazing:

That statement is totally and completely false. I have received a number of serious complaints over the years in regards to people who have had side effects from herbal products, and who have had difficulty with weight-loss programs just like theirs. Some of the people who have signed up aren't overweight at all. I remember one woman who had recently signed up and was told that she was overweight and needed the program. This woman has a serious body image distortion problem and didn't need a weight loss program at all.

Over the years Herbal Magic has made wild and unsupported claims for many of their herbal products, especially in the area of erectile dysfunction, and sexual enhancement. I remember watching a video at their store on Wonderland Road in London a few years ago that inferred that their products could prevent or treat cancer patients. Their weight-loss ads use testimonials and before and after pictures without identifying the dates that the pictures were actually taken. This is a technique that is used my many other weight loss franchises around the world, and is amply demonstrated widely on's numerous web pages.

After listening to his rebuttal of my complaint, I began to wonder if he really knew what was going on with his franchisees. Well, it so happens that the complaints that I made were justified, because the situation with some franchisees has evidently not changed very much in the last few years.

One of the most egregious web sites is for an advertisement in the Midland, Ontario area.

  • Click here to judge for yourself. - The site was accessed last on November 4, 2005.

  • The claims are made for the for the following conditions:
    Concerned About...

    * Good Health?
    * Weight Management?
    * Arthritis?
    * Constipation?
    * Sports Injury?
    * P.M.S./Menopause?
    * Chronic Sickness?
    * Back Pain?
    * Body Building?
    * Digestive Problems?
    * Carcinogens?

    Who is using Herbal Magicâ„¢ Systems Products??

    * Active Professionals wishing to maintain their vitality.
    * Individuals that are having a difficult time maintaining
    their desired weight.
    * Individuals with symptoms of physical and psychological stress.
    * Individuals with certain health illness.
    Are these claims validated by any scientific studies? The head of Herbal Magic tells me that they are really concentrating on weight loss, and have limited areas of interest in the other medical problems despite the fact that the list above is clearly not the case.

    He says that the staff have an extensive training program and that their offices are linked to a library of herbal product database that is instantly updated. There are no naturopaths or pharmacists in their local offices, and if patients are having problems they are told to see their family doctor. Well, in my area, 10% of our citizens don't have a family doctor. What is the average retail sales person at the desk supposed to do about this? How could a few CD-ROMS full of interactive software possibly prepare the sales people to assess whether or not a customer is having problems with the products?

    Then there is the question of whether or not any company has the right to place the name of a department of our Federal government in ANY advertisement. These folks have consistently had ads running in our local newspapers that have displayed some kind of apparent "seal of approval", a "blue ribbon" and other such nonsense that in my opinion implies that the Natural Health Products Directorate approves of their products. Just because there is a NHPD does not mean that any of the products are effective as claimed for the conditions listed above. As far as I am concerned the NHPD is being used by companies like this, and this is not justified.

    The products sold at the Herbal Magic counter are imported from companies in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and that has been going on for years. Anyone can just walk in and purchase them. They don't have to be a weight-loss client.

    Do you think that Health Canada or the NHPD actually plans to visit their stores to see how the registered products are being sold? Furthermore, do you think that they plan any real analysis of those products in the future after they grant the company the right to import and then sell them in Canada?

    For details of how the NHPD actually arrives at the decision to give each of their products an NPN - Natural Products Number, you will surprised. In fact, you will have to pay at least five dollars and file an ATIP with the Federal government if you want to attempt to learn about any of this, and that goes for any company. The NHPD has a track record that has not been well established. Some of the products in recent months that have been given an NPN are used to treat cancer patients in a quack cancer clinic in our own nation's capital. Another product granted approval has actually been blocked from sale, and that same company has been charged with serious violations of the Food and Drug Act that go back many years.

    So, I challenge the management of any company in the weight loss business to publish their results, and to follow up with their franchisees to assure the public that they are not in the snake-oil business. So far, only Weight Watchers has done that. Herbal Magic, despite its best efforts and claims that they are doing a great job serving their customers, has to prove it to the regulators and to me.

    I encourage anyone who feels that they may have been injured or become ill from any herbal product to contact Health Canada and fill out the Adverse Reporting Form. In addition, anyone who feels that any company has failed to provide adequate services for the money to complain to the Better Business Bureau in their community. Herbal products have been widely pushed in the market place, and Herbal Magic now has new competition in our area. Are the same standards basically being duplicated by these new entities?

    Herbal products generally make the claims that they are "natural" and "safe", but the evidence that they are effective, or "safe" for many people is just not there. That is not just my opinion. Consumer must be made aware that the vendors' claims may not be what they say, and that there may be complications with any ingested or applied natural product. Those are the facts, and we need to tell our patients that over and over again.

    Terry Polevoy, MD