Herbalife cozies up with UCLA

UCLA's Medical School has an unusually close relationship with Herbalife, which constantly promotes its connection to doctors there. Where do sensible ideas end and the shilling for Herbalife begin?

Herbalife International says it's all about helping people "pursue healthy, active lives." UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine likes to think of itself as being in the forefront of medical research and modern healthcare.

But the curious relationship between these two supposed champions of healthful living should turn your stomach.

Herbalife is the Los Angeles nutritional supplement firm that has become the centerpiece of a ferocious Wall Street tug of war. The major player is hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, who contends that Herbalife is a scam to sell overpriced products by fooling people into becoming Herbalife "distributors" by implying the business will make them rich. He says he's shorted $1 billion in Herbalife shares as a bet that the company is destined to collapse. On the other side are investors who either believe Herbalife will stay a highflier, or who just want to squeeze Ackman dry. (He's not a popular chap.)

PHOTOS: Inside Herbalife

One of Ackman's accusations against the company is that it exaggerates the scientific research behind its powders and pills. That's where UCLA comes in, because Herbalife has exploited its "strong affiliation" with the medical school to give its products scientific credibility.

Those words were uttered by Herbalife CEO Michael Johnson during a 2007 conference call. In fact, Johnson seldom lets an investor event pass without mentioning UCLA, specifically the Mark Hughes Cellular and Molecular Nutrition Lab at the medical school's Center for Human Nutrition. Herbalife says it has contributed $1.5 million in cash, equipment and software to the lab since 2002. (The lab is named after Herbalife's founder, who died in 2000 after a four-day drinking binge — not the greatest advertisement for healthful, active living.)

That's not much of an investment for a company that collected $2 billion in profits over the same period. But Johnson sometimes refers to the lab as if it's an Herbalife facility. "Our product development stems out of our own research and development labs," he told an investor conference in 2008. "It comes from UCLA where we have the Mark Hughes Cellular Lab there."

Nor does Johnson shrink from the admission of what he hopes to gain from the UCLA connection. In 2007, explaining how he inculcates Herbalife's distributors with respect for the firm's protein powders and other supplements, he said: "We bring these great minds from UCLA to join us, to give them confidence in these products."

That brings us to Herbalife's prime UCLA trophies, David Heber and Louis Ignarro.

Heber is director of the Center for Human Nutrition and a professor at the medical school. He's a well-known obesity specialist with hundreds of scientific articles and four popular diet books to his name. He's also chairman of Herbalife's "Nutrition Advisory Board," a collection of credentialed experts who supposedly meet once a year and sometimes make appearances at Herbalife events. Ignarro and two other UCLA medical school faculty members, dermatologist Jenny Kim and psychiatrist and aging specialist Gary Small, are also on the board. (None replied to my requests for comment.)

The board members traditionally have been paid as much as $60,000 annually, plus a per diem of up to $3,000 for event appearances. (This year, the company said it cut them back to $20,000 a year and $1,500 per diem).

Heber has a special deal, however. A firm he's "affiliated with" collects an annual payment of $300,000 from Herbalife, according to Herbalife disclosures. He also received Herbalife stock grants in 2005, 2010, 2011 and 2012. Herbalife refuses to say how much those grants were worth, and Heber refused to talk with me.

What was he paid for? According to a company spokesman, "for the use and promotion of the nutritional philosophies, theories and concepts contained in his bestselling books," as well as to lend luster to the company's products. In a 2009 promotional video, Johnson introduced Heber as a UCLA faculty member and as "a good friend, a pal and a mentor of Herbalife in all things nutrition." Together they bemoaned the nutritional catastrophe of fast-food burger and fries and offered up an Herbalife protein shake as though it's the only sensible alternative.

Ignarro is an even bigger catch. A professor at the medical school's department of pharmacology, he shared the 1998 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for work on the role of nitric oxide in cardiac health. Herbalife soon put him on its payroll. Since 2003, according to corporate disclosures, it has paid a consulting firm connected to Ignarro a total of $17.8 million.

The money principally covers royalties on the sale of an Herbalife product called Niteworks, the label of which carries Ignarro's signature and explicit endorsement. Niteworks, which Herbalife says is "based on" Ignarro's research, chiefly comprises the amino acids L-argenine and L-citrulline, which supposedly generate nitric oxide in the body. There's no evidence that the formulation has ever been subjected to clinical trials to determine its safety and efficacy for humans, and under a 1994 law it doesn't have to be — as a nutritional supplement, it's exempt from Food and Drug Administration oversight of the sort applied to pharmaceuticals.

Ignarro's connection with Herbalife hasn't been free of embarrassment: In 2003 and 2004 he co-wrote two academic articles about the positive affect of nitric oxide on mice, without disclosing his role with the marketing of Niteworks or his connection to Herbalife. The journal that published both papers had to run corrections making the appropriate disclosures. He later apologized, saying that his Italian co-authors "inadvertently failed" to make the disclosures and asserting that he did not act improperly. He didn't respond to my request for an interview.

Herbalife relentlessly promotes its Ignarro connection. At distributor events he's treated like a rock star, telling packed, cheering audiences how great Niteworks is — "It's magical in that it works!" He can be seen in an Herbalife video talking about this "refreshing lemon-flavored product" that "enhances the body's natural nitric oxide production while you sleep." If you look fast, you'll see a disclaimer flash on the screen warning that these statements "have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration" and that Niteworks "is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."

That's a clue to how Heber and Ignarro can make grandiose claims for Herbalife products with impunity: That same 1994 law allows nutritional supplement marketers like Herbalife to say almost anything about their nostrums, as long as they flash that pro-forma disclaimer.

It's hard to blame Herbalife for seeking credibility by throwing money at college professors; marketing 101 tells us that even an implicit university endorsement can sprinkle pixie dust over the meanest product. Throw in a Nobel Prize, and you're golden. Nor is Herbalife the only firm to dig its talons into the medical school's Center for Human Nutrition. In one of his books Heber mentions that the center's donors have included Lynda and Stewart Resnick, whose Roll Global markets Fiji Water, Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice and Wonderful Pistachios.

So you may not be surprised to learn that in 2008 Heber was appointed to the firm's Pistachio Health Scientific Advisory Board. Or that he was co-author of a 2012 scientific paper finding that pistachios are a more healthful snack than pretzels. Or that when Pom got in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission for making inflated health claims for its pomegranate juice, he was a leading expert witness for the defense. (The FTC found the firm's ads deceptive anyway.)

Heber, Ignarro and their colleagues certainly have some sound medical and nutritional ideas to offer, but they've made it impossible to know where the sensible ideas end and the shilling for Herbalife begins. Herbalife maintains that it employs its UCLA cadre "as individuals, not in their capacities as UCLA employees or representatives." But that's baloney of an especially non-nutritious variety: Most of them are on the Herbalife payroll because of their UCLA connection.

That's a serious issue for the medical school. At what point does it lose its reputation as a source of objective scientific knowledge, and become instead an arm of Herbalife's (or the Resnicks') P.R. machine? At what point does it begin to look like a university for sale?

When torrents of cash fall upon people like Heber and Ignarro — especially when the payments promote interests fundamentally in conflict with their responsibilities for thorough, objective research — it's proper to ask whether the recipients should be viewed primarily as university professors with an income source on the side, or as agents of industry exploiting their academic titles for show.

The University of California has a "conflict-of-commitment" policy governing the outside activities of its faculty members, but it may be too tolerant. The policy frowns on outside salaried work without written permission, but it provides a yawning loophole for arrangements like consultantships. Faculty are required to maintain "appropriate standards of scholarly inquiry" and to practice "intellectual honesty."

The policy is silent on how those standards might be affected by outside income of $300,000 a year, much less $17.8 million over a decade.

UCLA plainly hasn't done enough to make sure that its faculty aren't trading on its name in ways that devalue that name. But Herbalife may not be gaining as much as it thinks, either. Examine this relationship closely enough, and when you ask yourself whose claims for the healthfulness of these products you should believe, Herbalife's or the professors', you may find that the only safe answer is: nobody's.

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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