Be Wary of Gero Vita, A. Glenn Braswell,
and Braswell's 'Journal' of Longevity

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Almon Glenn Braswell has sold pills and potions through the mail. Since the mid-1970s, he has probably taken in more money and more people than any similar marketer in U.S. history. This article details what he has done, looks at connections he has had with prominent politians, and describes some of the actions law enforcement have taken against him.

Most of Braswell's marketing was done under the name Gero Vita International, which offered a large line of "dietary supplements" from its Web site and by mail. Its brochures described the comnpany as "specialists in ailment-targeted natural formulas." In 1988, the company and its sister corporations began blanketing the country with mailings under various names and addresses in the United States and Canada. Over the years, I have collected solicitations ostensibly from Gero Vita Laboratories, Life Force Laboratories, Vita Industries, Health Quest Publications, Rein Anton, MD, PhD, James F. Balch Jr, MD, Hyla Cass, MD, Benjamin Friedrich, MD, Jay Gordon, MD, and Joseph D. Weissman, MD. Although many of the solicitations had a Canadian return address, all of the products were packaged and shipped from within the United States. Gero Vita's business was actually conducted by G.B. Data Systems of Marina Del Rey, California, which was later renamed JOL Management Company.

The late Ted Ponich, who was G.B. Data's chief operating officer from 1997 through 1998, believed that Gero Vita was the biggest direct marketer of health products in the United States, with 20 million mailings per month and 1998 sales of about about $170 million [1]. A 2000 ad for a sales director stated that G.B. Data Systems was grossing $250 million annually. The products contained vitamins, minerals, herbs, and/or other supplement ingredients that are promoted with claims related to allergies, prostate trouble, arthritis, digestive disorders, blood sugar balance, bone and joint health, memory, vascular health, "detoxification," weight management, immune support, anti-aging, sexual enhancement, and much more.

Purchase of any product entitled the buyer to a free one-year subscription (available separately for $39.95) to the Journal of Longevity (previously called the Journal of Longevity Research), a monthly magazine that Braswell published. The magazine's advisory board included several well-known promoters of quackery. Each issue contained articles suggesting that many diseases are caused by nutrient shortages and that various substances are therapeutic. Products containing these supplements could be obtained by calling a toll-free number or submitting an order form located in the magazine. Many of its articles are still archived on the Web.

Some of the products may have some effectiveness (though overpriced), but most were promoted with misleading claims. Evaluation of the individual products was difficult because their ingredients were not listed in the ads, but it is clear that many of the advertised claims went far beyond what was possible. One brochure for its product "Prostata," for example, claimed that (a) prostate enlargement can be treated successfully with zinc supplements; (b) the side effects of drugs prescribed to shrink the prostate are almost as bad as the prostate disorder itself; (c) saw palmetto, in addition to relieving prostate symptoms, might also be an aphrodisiac; (d) another herbal ingredient reduced enlarged prostate problems in "as high as 66% of cases" and has no significant side effects; (e) it is important to take Prostata "before it is too late." The last page of the brochure contained pictures of six movie stars, three prominent athletes, and a former chief executive officer of Time Warner, who either "waited too long and died from prostate problems!" or "waited too long and are suffering." Some in the latter group sued Braswell for misrepresentation and for improperly using their name and picture for marketing purposes.

 

 

Another product, Gero-Vita GH3, was said to be an anti-aging formula based on the work of Anna Aslan, a Rumanian physician who developed Gerovital H3, an injectable product she claimed was "the secret of eternal vigor and youth." Its principal ingredient was procaine, a local anesthetic. Although many uncontrolled studies have reported great benefits from the use of GH3, controlled trials have failed to demonstrate any improvement in elderly patients. Noting that para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) and diethylaminoethanol (DMAE) appear in the urine of people receiving procaine injections, a few American manufacturers have been selling procaine tablets containing PABA and/or DMAE with false claims similar to those made for GH3. The FDA has taken regulatory action against several companies marketing "GH3" products, but other brands still are marketed.

Braswell's Gero-Vita GH3 formula contained PABA, DMAE, and several vitamins and minerals. A Gero Vita brochure—"Stop the Clock! Scientists Say: You Can Live 20% Longer and Healthier!"—contained 35 testimonials that Gero-Vita GH3 relieved arthritis, caused leg swelling to disappear, improved sex life, lowered blood pressure, turned hair darker, improved memory, softened skin, sped healing, relieved back pain, improved endurance, stabilized growth of a cataract, and made people look much younger. However, there is no reason to believe that any ingredient in the product could produce any of these effects.

For several years, Braswell's Vita Industries sent solicitations for Gero-Vita GH3 that resembled an ordinary large, two-sided newspaper page with a "handwritten" note addressing the recipient by first name and "signed" with someone's initial. (One in my files, for example, states: "Dear Dorothy, You've got to try this. It works! J.") Ads of this type are designed to make the recipient think they come from someone they know. However, recipients might also be upset by the thought that the sender thinks they look too old.

In 1992, the Iowa Attorney General obtained a consent decree and injunction barring Vita Industries from promoting, selling, or advertising any drug or nutriotional product that had not been shown to be safe and effective by at least two well-designed scientific studies and is generally recognized as safe and effective for its intended purpose. The company was also assessed $25,000 and ordered to make full refunds to any consumer who complained within 30 days after the order was issued. It was also barred from marketing its products in Iowa [2]. Later that year, after it sent solicitations to an investigator from the Attorney General's office, the company signed a second consent agreement to pay $6,000 to the state's Elderly Fund [3]

In 1995, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, Inc. announced that Gero Vita International had failed to substantiate advertising for a GH3 Anti-Aging Pill, which had claimed:

In 1995, the FDA banned the importation of all of Gero Vita's products marketed with claims that they can prevent or treat disease. In 1997, the ban was extended to cover Life Force Laboratories [5]. The ban was set up because many of the mailings used a Canadian ordering address for Gero Vita Laboratories, which suggested that the company was located in Canada. The ban has not been effective, however, because the Canadian locations simply forward the orders, which are filled from within the United States.

Gero Vita also invited doctors to join its Medi-Plex Physicians Nutrition Network, which would enable them to buy its products at 40% to 50% discounts for resale to their patients.

One reason for Braswell's commercial success was his association with health professionals whom he listed as advisors and/or authors of articles in his publications. Some of them were also quoted with their picture in his advertising brochures. A 1999 brochure stated that the chairman of Gero Vita's medical advisory board was Murray Susser, MD, who practiced in California. In 1995, Susser was charged with unprofessional conduct, gross negligence, incompetence, repeated negligent acts, and excessive use of diagnostic procedures. The complaint charged that he had failed to diagnose gallstones in one patient and colon cancer in two others. In each case, he ordered inappropriate tests, failed to order appropriate tests, and prescribed vitamins and other inappropriate treatment. In 1997, Susser signed a stipulated settlement under which he paid $15,000 for costs and served three years on probation [6,7]. In January 1998, he surrendered his New York State medical license without contesting that he had been disciplined by the Medical Board of California for gross negligence and incompetence. Another Gero Vita advisor, James R. Privitera, MD, was convicted in 1975 of conspiring to prescribe and distribute laetrile (a quack cancer remedy) and was sentenced to six months in prison. In 1980, after the appeals process ended, he served 55 days in jail but was released after being pardoned by California Governor Jerry Brown. Privitera was sanctioned by California's licensing board. Others listed as Medi-Plex advisory board members have included: Hans J. Kugler, PhD; Douglas Hunt, PhD, Yuguo Ni, LicAc; Ilona Abraham, MD; Ronald DiSalvo, PhD, Joseph Weissman, MD; Paul Yutsis, PhD; Donald C. Thompson, MD, DPh; Carol Uebelacker, MD; Ronald Lawrence, MD, PhD; Gary S. Ross, MD; and Daniel Mowrey, PhD. For more details about Braswell's advisors, click here.

Background History

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Braswell marketed many products claimed to cure baldness, enlarge the female breast, delay the aging process, cause weight loss, remove "cellulite," and improve the growth and appearance of fingernails. Anyone who purchased at least $9.50 worth of the products was given a free 18-month subscription to Body Forum, a magazine filled with ads and supportive editorial content—the same set-up used for the Journal of Longevity.

Braswell holds the record as the person against whom the Postal Service filed the largest number of health-related false representation complaints. As a Postal Service official summarized at a Congressional hearing in 1984:

One hundred and thirty-eight false representation complaints were filed against 50 different medical-cosmetic products marketed by Braswell, Inc., through a multitude of addresses in Atlanta, GA and Fort Lauderdale, FL. These cases were concluded through 32 false representation orders and 15 consent agreements. . . . Evidence in one case revealed that Braswell received over $2 million for a worthless baldness cure in one six-month period. Mr. Braswell pled guilty to mail fraud charges involving the faking of before and after advertising photographs purportedly revealing the results of bust developer, hair growth and cosmetic products, and was sentenced to five years' probation. He was also sentenced to a three-year prison term for Federal income tax evasion and perjury charges developed during our mail fraud investigation [8].

At the hearing, Braswell said his corporations had probably grossed over $75 million in 12 years.

This ad, which appeared in the August 1980 issue of Body Forum, was one of many he used to market vitamin tablets and lotions as baldness remedies. The ad falsely claimed that hereditary baldness was caused by nutritional shortages and could be halted by a hair lotion called Biogenesis. The ad featured pictures that supposedly represented the appearance of a many's scalp before and after using the product.

Male-pattern baldness is responsible for 95% of all hair loss in men and also occurs in women. Although a specific cause cannot be identified, it is probably related to hereditary factors (especially among Caucasians), an excess of male hormones (androgens) such as testosterone, and possibly attacks on scalp hair follicles by the body's immune system. Nutritional deficiencies are not a factor, and there is no reason to believe that Braswell's lotion stimulated hair growth. Although the ad claimed that European doctors had reported an 80% success rate in experiments, medical experts who investigated this claim concluded that the studies did not provide sufficient basis for such a claim [9].

The Administrative Law Judge decisions against Braswell and his former companies are posted in full on the U.S. Postal Service Web site. To access them, search for "Cosvetic" ""Peak Labs," " Earthquest," "Standard Research," "Vangault Labs," or "Quest Research."

 

In 1983, Braswell and his companies settled FTC charges that they did not have adequate scientific evidence that their hair-loss products worked and and that they had not paid refunds as promised to their customers. Under a court-approved agreement, the parties agreed to pay $610,000 in penalties and were permanently barred from making performance or efficacy claims for any product or service without reliable scientific evidence to substantiate the claim [10].

Curiously, Biogenesis and several of Braswell's other products are still being marketed today. In 2001, an article on the Club Head Start Web site stated that when Braswell ceased operations in 1983, Vitamin Products International was formed "to take over ongoing operation of the business."

Political Connections

Braswell has had connections to George W. Bush and George's brother Jeb Bush, who is Governor of Florida. Braswell and his companies have donated a total of at least $220,000 to their campaigns and to the Republican Party:

Date

Amount
Donor Recipient
7/13/98

20,000

A. Glenn Braswell National Republican Senatorial Committee [11]
10/13/98

25,000

A. Glenn Braswell George W. Bush Campaign Committee [12]
7/1/99

5,000

A. Glenn Braswell Republican Party of Florida (Federal Account) [11]
7/1/99

95,000

A. Glenn Braswell State Committee, Republican Party of Florida [13]
11/19/99

50,000

G.B. Data Systems Republican National Committee [14]
3/30/00

25,000

G.B. Data Systems Republican Party of Florida [11]

The July 2000 issue of the Journal of Longevity contained an article by Jeb accompanied by a picture of him and George. The article states (in part):

With the November elections fast approaching, healthcare is a top-priority issue facing candidates and voters. . . .

I have always paid close attention to the needs of seniors and their impact on policy reform. My brother, George W., also has maintained a strong focus on these seasoned veterans and their needs. And what need could be more important than health? However, today's health scene bristles with perplexing problems: inadequate insurance coverage, the soaring cost of prescription drugs, and the many restrictions of managed care.

One of the most important issues that both my brother and I believe will become even more critical due to this senior boom is integrative medicine. . . . I see it as combining the best elements of two worlds: the best of conventional medicine, with its lifesaving drugs and surgical procedures, and the best of alternative medicine, with its natural approaches to chronic diseases.

I can see this integration of the two sides of medicine already taking place, Driving the new partnership is the growing demand for therapies and nutrients that are safe and without side effects. . . . Further, a number of healthcare providers have found these therapies very cost-effective. More and more insurance companies are covering acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathic, massage therapy, traditional Chinese medicine, and other modalities.

To reinforce the process of change, I would stress the importance of prevention. I advocate preventive measures to maintain wellness, such as regular checkups, screening tests for early detection, public programs to help promote healthy lifestyles, and more effective guidance for dealing with chronic health problems. Prevention also is founded on proper nutrition to maintain wellness and avoid disease, thereby extending life span. This means our seniors should have access to a full array of nutrients: the vitamins and minerals that tend to become depleted with age as well as the herbs and other natural substances that can relieve chronic disorders [15].

How did Jeb Bush's article wind up in Braswell's magazine? Bush's representatives told investigators from Newsweek and the St. Petersburg Times that the article they had submitted had been altered without their knowledge or consent [17,18]. But conflicting accounts emerged:

The investigators also reported:

The resultant mini-scandal apparently hhad some effect. The day following the above reports Republican Party officials decided to return $175,000 of the contributions. They also said that—as a result of inquiries made by the Times reporter—they had determined to return $100,000 check Braswell gave at a South Florida fundraiser for George W. Bush [19].

The Pardon Scandal and Further Trouble

On his last day as President of the United States, Bill Clinton included Braswell among the 140 felons whom he pardoned. (The pardon was for Braswell's 1983 conviction.) Pardons normally require demonstrated good conduct for a substantial period of time after the criminal sentence is completed. Braswell's longstanding mail-order scams hardly fit that description. Many major news outlets reported that he was under investigation by the FDA, FTC, Internal Revenue Service, and several state attorneys general and that a federal grand jury in Los Angeles was investigating him for money laundering and tax evasion [20].

As the scandal broke, dozens of reporters began trying to understand why Clinton pardoned Braswell. It turned out that the attorney who actually delivered the pardon application was Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother Hugh Rodham, who was promised payment of $200,000 if the pardon was granted. Bill Clinton stated that he was unaware of Braswell's pending legal troubles, and both Bill and Hillary Clinton denied knowing that Hugh Rodham was advocating for Braswell.

Ironically, the pardon may have served a useful purpose by causing regulatory agencies to give higher priority to Braswell's illegal activities. In 2001, the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing that focused on Braswell and his misdeeds [21]. The hearing included testimony from a former business associate [22] and from an attorney who had sued Braswell on behalf of several clients [23]. In 2003, the FTC charged Braswell, four corporations, and Ron Tepper with false advertising [25]. In 2004, after having pleaded guilty to tax evasion and paid more than $10 million in back taxes, penalties and interest [26], Braswell was sentenced to 18 months in prison. A few weeks later, the FTC amended its civil complaint to add Drs. Lawrence and Kugler as defendants [27]. in June 2005, the corporations, Tepper, and Lawrence settled the charges against them by agreeing to pay a total of $605,000 and to refrain from making unsubstantiated claims for products in the future [28]. In October, Kugler agreed to pay $15,000 and to refrain from making future endorsements that are not based on competent evidence or within his represented areas of expertise [29].

In December 2005, Braswell signed a stipulation under which he:

Gero Vita continues to market many of the products, but Braswell no longer owns it and the claims made for the products have been toned down.

It would be interesting to know why the FDA, the FTC, and the U.S. Postal Service did not try to stop Braswell's illegal activities sooner.

Note: f you have any copies of Braswell's magazines, please send them to me at P.O. Box 1747, Allentown, PA 18105.

For Further Information

References

  1. Fefer MD. Quack in my box. Seattle Weekly, Jan 6-12, 2000.
  2. Consent decree. State of Iowa v Vita Industries, Equity No. CE38-22469, Jan 21, 1992.
  3. Second consent decree. State of Iowa v Vita Industries, Equity No. CE38-22469, Sept 23, 1992.
  4. NAD requests discontinuance of advertising for anti-aging pill. News release, Council of Better Business Bureaus, June 2, 1995.
  5. FDA Import Alert #66-441. Unapproved New Drugs Promoted In the U.S. Revised attachment, 3/19/99.
  6. In the matter of the accusation against Murray Susser, MD. First amended and supplemental accusation. Case No. 07-92-16339, Jan 18, 1996.
  7. In the matter of the accusation against Murray Susser, MD. Stipulated settlement and disciplinary order. Case No. 07-92-16339, OAH No. L-9601259, Feb 18, 1997.
  8. Nelson CP. Statement presented on May 31, 1984 to the United States House of Representatives, Select Committee on Aging, Subcommittee on Health and Long-term Care. In Quackery: A $10 Billion Scandal. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1984, pages 137-138..
  9. In the Matter of the Complaint against Cosvetic Laboratories, et al. or any variation thereof at P. O. Boxes 95543, 95544 and 95545, Atlanta, GA 30347, etc. Postal Service Docket No. 8/160, July 22, 1982.
  10. Braswell prohibited permanently from advertising baldness "cures" without FDA approval of product, under Federal Trade Commission Consent Judgment. FTC News Notes, Oct 4, 1983.
  11. Baldauf S. Bush donors wear big hat, give big money. In free-for-all world of Texas fund-raising, his backers came from largest industries. Christian Science Monitor, Jan 25, 2000.
  12. George W. Bush Campaign Contribution Database (search Braswell/Miami/FL)
  13. FECInfo Database (Site no longer online).
  14. Florida Department of State Division of Elections Database
  15. Soft Money Update, Dec 30, 1999. FECInfo Web site, accessed 8/7/00.
  16. Bush J. Bush -- A healthy future for our seniors. Journal of Longevity 6(7):11, 2000.
  17. Isikoff M. The Bush family and the medicine man. Newsweek Web, Sept 29, 2000.
  18. Morgan L. Bush brothers pop up in potion peddler's magazine: Gov Jeb Bush bylined article for the journal about alternative medicine after a fundraiser by the owner, who's also a felon. St. Petersburg Times Online, Sept 29, 2000.
  19. Morgan L. Bush, GOP return felon's funds. The Texas governor's campaign said it didn't know about Braswell's criminal past. St. Petersburg Times Online, Sept 30, 2000.
  20. Pasternack D. Another dubious pardon: Why did Clinton forgive a felon under fresh investigation? U.S. News & World Report, Feb 12, 2001.
  21. Swindlers, hucksters and snake oil salesmen: The hype and hope of marketing anti-aging products to seniors. U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. Sept10, 2001.
  22. Testimony of Mike O'Neil, former chief financial officer, GB Data Systems. U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing, Sept10, 2001.
  23. Testimony of E. Vernon F. Glenn, Esq. U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing, Sept10, 2001.
  24. Owner of California dietary supplement company arrested at Florida home on federal charges of evading payment of millions in income taxes. U.S. Dept. of Justice press release, Jan 14, 2003.
  25. A. Glenn Braswell's dietary supplement enterprise targeted: FTC challenges false and unsubstantiated claims. FTC news release, May 27, 2003
  26. Former owner of California dietary supplement company pleads guilty in federal tax fraud conspiracy. USDOJ news release, March 2, 2004.
  27. First amended complaint. FTC vs. Braswell et al. U.S. District Court, Central District of California, Case No. CV 03-3700 DT (PJWx), filed March 31, 2004.
  28. Supplement marketers settle FTC charges. FTC news release, June 8, 2005.
  29. Settlement agreement and final order as to Hans Kugler. U.S. District Court, Central District of California, Case No. CV 03-3700 DT (PJWx). Order filed Oct 19, 2005.
  30. Stipulated final order for permanent injunction and settlement of claims for monetary relief as to A. Glenn Braswell. FTC vs Braswell et al. U.S. District Court, Central District of California, Case No. CV 03-3700 DT (PJWx). Order filed Dec 28, 2005.

This article was revised on January 4, 2006.

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