A Growing Attraction to a New Field

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Were it not for the watchful eyes at the Food and Drug Administration, you might see bumper stickers like this across Southern California and beyond:

MAGNET THERAPY=

WORLD HEALTH, WORLD PEACE

From backaches to headaches and tennis elbow, from poodles with broken legs to bridge-club women rump-sprung from sitting too long, controversial "magnet therapy" is being employed increasingly these days as an alternative to mainstream medical approaches. In the process, international businesses record huge annual sales and mom-and-pop operations thrive by soliciting mail orders through classified ads in health magazines.

One of the biggest players, with its equally big name, is Nihon Kenko Zoushin Kenkyuka Corp. Its North American subsidiary, Nikken Inc., headquartered in Irvine, started U.S. operations seven years ago and now says it has a "multilevel" network of 60,000 distributors, with the most senior ones collecting the biggest share of the pie.

Look out Mary Kay and Amway, here comes Nikken in a downsized America where lawyers, doctors and corporate castoffs have caught the sales fever along with the traditional network marketing army of homemakers, students and entrepreneurs. Nikken officials said they recorded $1.5 billion in sales for 1994, including $60 million in the United States.

By comparison, there's Mid-American Marketing Corp., a five-employee, family business based in Eaton, Ohio, that sells magnetic fare by mail order: earrings, headbands, necklaces, shoe inserts, magnetic mattresses and knee braces.

And then there's retired Borden Foods CEO, William Roper, who set up a magnet therapy business in North Palm Beach, Fla. Thanks to Roper, Senior PGA golfer Jim Colbert--who relies on silver dollar-sized magnets attached to his back and magnetic shoe inserts as blocks to chronic pain--is gaining prominence as "Magnet Man."

But the FDA scoffs at the claims for magnets.

The basic theory is that magnets stimulate electrical and magnetic fields in the body to allow for healing, improved circulation and good health. Cleopatra, Aristotle, Galen and many other historic personages invoked the medicinal properties of magnets, proponents say.

Eschewing traditional advertising, the magnet therapy business lives on word-of-mouth. The pitches can take on emotional tenors as they're made neighbor to neighbor, friend to friend.

Case in point: A physician in San Clemente was talking earlier this year with her medical schoolmate from years ago, Dr. Wayne Andersen of Dayton, Ohio. She told him about magnets as a relaxation tool. A skeptical Andersen, director of surgical intensive care at Grandview Hospital and Medical Center, told his wife, Lori, who'd been suffering from back problems for months. Within four days of placing on her back a shiny gold, flexible pad with magnets embedded in it, she became a convert.

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"It's a miracle," said Lori Andersen, a lithe 35-year-old nurse anesthesiologist as she waited in line two weeks ago with hundreds of magnet enthusiasts who were placing orders in the Anaheim Convention Center.

At her side, Wayne Andersen, a tanned 44-year-old, confirmed that they've both become true believers in barely four months. That's what prompted them to be in Anaheim among the 4,000 from 13 countries at Nikken's 21st international convention.

Working part time, the Andersens said they're netting $4,000 a month, easily having recouped their Nikken investment of about $2,000.

In a product display room at the convention, the Andersens talked with Nikken aficionados: Mickey Yokoi, 37-year-old golf pro from their country club; Herb Rapp, a 47-year-old former tennis pro from Thousand Oaks; and William Todd of Bend, Ore., a 34-year-old former corporate efficiency expert who himself got downsized.

From a table, Wayne Andersen retrieved a "Solitens unit," a device shaped like a flattened writing pen that emits an electrical signal designed to trigger the release of endorphins, which "opiate the tissue." Of the Nikken products, it's the only federally approved medical device and must be sold by prescription. Wayne Andersen demonstrated on his golfer friend's injured thumb. The Solitens, which retails for $245, beeped as it encountered pain spots. Yokoi winced but the device seemed to help.

Around them, people reclined on magnet-filled mattresses that sell for from $390 to $1,190. People tried out magnetized back rollers that cost $120 to $165, lay under $290 to $490 thermal quilts and rolled $60 "Magboy" magnetic balls across thighs, arms and backs.

A feel-good feeling permeated the convention. One afternoon delegates presented skits; in one by a Hong Kong group, Nikken products resuscitate a weary woman. The narrator suggests the same thing may happen when China takes over Hong Kong in 1997: Through Nikken, "We become one big family."

"It's like a church social," Nikken spokesman Clifton Jolley said, surveying the audience and watching traditional Taiwanese dancers.

Also circulating at the convention were magnet stories, including ones on a tape, "Animal Stories." Made by a once-skeptical Cornell-educated veterinarian who issues carefully worded caveats, the recording details how Dr. Claire Lodahl of Cortez, Colo., uses magnets. The vet outlines cases including recoveries of a poodle with a broken bone that had failed to respond to conventional care, a horse with back discomfort and a cat with breathing problems.

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The FDA, however, takes a different view. "There is no evidence showing these magnet devices are effective," said spokeswoman Sharon Snider. "These things have been out there for years." But as far as the FDA is concerned, it's not a question of are the products safe, but do they work?

To that end, Ann Gill Taylor, a University of Virginia nursing professor, is planning to study magnets used for pain relief. Last year she received $1.1 million from the U.S. Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. The money is funding a center to study "complementary therapies," including magnets, music, massage and chiropractic used for pain treatment.

Physicist Abraham R. Liboff, director of medical physics at Oakland University in Michigan, said he welcomes research but is concerned the federal government is ignoring research-worthy, bio-electromagnetic approaches that can address arthritis, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injuries. As one of a five-member federal advisory panel on electromagnetic applications in medicine, Liboff helped to draft a report on this.

Over the years, Liboff said he's been approached by representatives from three magnet-product companies. Each time, he said, the companies sought endorsements, but when he broached research funding, "there was an immediate cooling off. They're afraid of research. Their view is why bother, they're making lots of money."

But, he said, until research is done, magnet therapy cannot escape the "snake-oil hucksterism" label.

Using bioelectromagnetics, Liboff said, he developed a patented, bone-repair technique, now marketed by an Arizona firm. But he said this is altogether different from magnets in an elbow brace--magnets that wouldn't hold a piece of paper on a refrigerator. "Magnet therapy concerns me."

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The week before the Nikken convention, Larry M. Proffit of Mission Viejo is at a poolside table at the Inn at the Park in Anaheim. Dressed in a double-breasted suit and with wavy, reddish hair, Proffit, 57, is vice president for marketing of Nikken North America. He's conducting seminars for distributors.

The son of a Wyoming rancher and a schoolteacher, Proffit was trained as an electrical engineer and worked for many years for General Electric. He left to go into multilevel marketing.

If he speaks elliptically, he says, it's because of the company's desire to not run afoul of the FDA. "Our people cannot even use the word 'pain' or we'd violate FDA rules."

Yet he says there are dramatic stories--but "we have to be careful." That's why, he says, Nikken generally avoids publicity.

Onstage, Proffit tells how Nikken began: A desk clerk for a bus line, Isamu Masuda, had a child born in 1973 without ears. "He blamed his son's birth defects on his own poor health." With that Masuda looked for ways to improve his health, finding the technique of magnetic inserts for shoes. Within two years, Masuda (now chairman) built his company on the "five pillars of health": healthy body, mind, family, finances and society.

Proffit invites distributors to give their testimonials. Some are near tears.

A white-haired trial attorney for 20 years in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, says he's found a job that's win-win. Another man says he and his wife now bring in $10,000 a month. "I don't need my MIT degree," he says, returning to his seat to get a high-five from a bearded man in Hasidic attire.

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