Today, the Wall Street Journal broke the news that GOP presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson has been marketing products for a company that has been charged with false advertising and accused of presenting “deceptive” and “illegal” testimonials.  Dr. Carson, who has served as director of pediatric surgery at John Hopkins Hospital, has been appearing in some of those testimonials on YouTube. In fact, he has been doing it for well over a decade.

In June of 2002, at age 50, Carson was diagnosed with prostate cancer. His colleague at John Hopkins, Dr. Patrick Walsh, said at the time, “Everything looked good…I think this is a curable cancer, and everything today looked compatible with that.” Carson successfully underwent surgery in August of 2002 and was pronounced cancer-free. Yet, according to the WSJ report, Carson also consulted with the medical director of Mannatech, a company in the business of manufacturing “dietary” and “nutritional” supplements.

In 2004, Carson addressed “sales associates” at Mannatech, attributing his “cure” not to Dr. Walsh’s surgical skills, but rather to the company’s products: “Within about three weeks my symptoms went away, and I was really quite amazed.” Up until recently, Dr. Carson was one of Mannatech’s most prominent spokespersons. That same year, Mannatech was sued by a woman whose son had undergone “treatments” with the company’s products. The boy had been suffering from Tay-Sachs disease, a genetic condition that causes degeneration of the nervous system. Despite the “treatments,” the boy died.

According to the lawsuit, the sales associate used photographs of the boy for marketing purposes without permission. That associate also published an article in the Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association. The article included the boy’s image, and made claims that Mannatech supplements had been successful – despite the fact that the boy was already dead. Seven years later, the company was still using pictures of the boy in its sales literature, giving the impression that he was alive and well.

Since then, Mannatech has been the target of a lawsuit alleging violations of the Securities Exchange Act for “issuing a series of material misrepresentations”, and has been investigated by the Texas Attorney General for violating the state’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act. In 2007, Mannatech founder and CEO at the time responded to the investigation: “We’re not into the treatment, cure or mitigation of disease. We’re into the improvement of quality of life. Now, who can benefit from good nutrition? Sick people, well people, everybody.”

That may have been the company’s “official” line, but the fact is that sales associates (who are recruited through a multi-level marketing, or “pyramid” scheme) had been making those claims – and Dr. Ben Carson, who should have known better, gave them plenty of credibility.  Most reputable physicians agree that good nutrition can indeed go a long way toward promoting good health; it is a concept going all the way back to Hippocrates, who said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” However, there are limits to what nutrients can treat in terms of disease. Mannatech’s sales associates made outrageous claims that have clearly been discredited by medical science. Why would an otherwise brilliant physician like Carson have gone along with it?

Part of it was the money. Carson was paid tens of thousands of dollars for his endorsements, although these fees have reportedly been donated to charity. However, there is another part of the equation: Carson’s religious convictions (note that the company’s name combines “manna,” a word with biblical connotations, with “tech”).  In one of his endorsements, Carson said:

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…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.

Well, Dr. Carson…as your religion also teaches, even the Devil can quote scripture to suit his own purposes.

Despite his scientific training and reputation as a surgeon, Carson was willing to be part of a scam that was nothing more than a latter-day version of a 19th-Century “Medicine Show,” peddling 21st-Century “patent medicines.” To be fair, Carson may actually have believed what he was saying, though it is significant that he discontinued his association about the time he decided to get into politics.

For more on this story, click Wall Street Journal Ben Carson Has Had Ties to Dietary Supplement Firm That Faced Legal Challenge

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.