Would you buy supplements from Alex Jones?
We’re just going to put this out there: Alex Jones is not the most trusted name in news. The Infowars host has devolved, in recent years, from a shameless peddler of baseless, far-right conspiracy theories into a bizarre, disorienting spectacle. What exactly is happening as Jones, shirtless and goggle-eyed, roars spit-flecked tirades at the camera? Maybe this performance of rage is somehow cathartic, enacting an anger his viewers feel but can’t express. Maybe it’s self-parodic shtick—Jones’ lawyer seems to suggest he’s in the know. Or maybe he’s simply on some varsity league drugs.
Whatever the case, here’s the unfortunate truth: A not-insignificant number of Americans have elected to buy mail order health supplements from this man. The exact number isn’t known, but New York magazine estimates between $15 and $25 million dollars’ worth per year. And that’s too bad because, according to a new BuzzFeed investigation, Jones’s products aren’t much better than his “news”—basically, a waste of time.
BuzzFeed submitted a range of products to Labdoor, a San-Francisco based lab that tests the quality of dietary supplements. The lab—a for-profit company with a list of venture capital backers including businessman and vocal Trump detractor Mark Cuban—subjected each of Jones’s offerings to a legit-sounding process: “We tested samples in triplicate, and wherever possible, cross-checked those results with at least two independent analytical laboratories, so we have complete trust in our conclusions,” Brian Brandley, the company’s laboratory director, told BuzzFeed News.
Here’s the good news. According to Labdoor, the supplements—unlike #pizzagate and Seth Rich conspiracy theories—weren’t actively harmful, testing free of heavy metals, illegal substances, and chemicals known to be toxic. But they probably aren’t doing much good either.
Some examples: Anthroplex, a “daily foundation for men” sold for $39.95, cites its zinc content in promotional materials, but Labdoor found that there’s actually 31 percent less zinc than promised. At that negligible level, according to the report, even a seriously zinc-deficient person wouldn’t see results. “This product is a waste of money,” the report reads. “The claim that ‘Anthroplex works synergistically with the powerful Super Male Vitality formula in order to help restore your masculine foundation and stimulate vitality with its own blend of unique ingredients’ is fluff on multiple fronts.”
Then there’s the $29.95 Survival Shield X-2, an iodine supplement that Jones claims is “derived from 200+ million year old salt crystals,” is “tested for radiation” and “supports thyroid health and healthy hormone levels.” According to Labdoor, that’s bunk—it’s just everyday iodine sold, at 30 bucks an ounce, at a steep markup. It’s “the same stuff doctors used to pour on surfaces as a disinfectant,” Labdoor’s report read.
There’s more: a “Child Ease” concoction that claims to support attention span in kids, made from herbs that haven’t been tested for safety or efficacy. A $50-dollar “Lung Cleanse” spray that’s basically cheap cough medicine. A “Brain Force Neural Activator” with B vitamins and amino acids, but at lower levels than you’ll find in other products.
Taken together, the items in the Infowars store offer imagined, pseudo-scientific solutions to a range of American symptoms. We’re scattered. We can’t concentrate. Our joints hurt. We don’t feel as young and vigorous as we used to. We’re afraid of aging. We’re afraid of death. And Jones is only the oldest trick in the con artist book: he’s tapping into people’s anxieties and insecurities, and exploiting them to make money. It’s gross. It’s unethical. But, in this case, it’s actually not illegal.
By their very legal definition, supplements don’t have to do anything. “Unlike drugs, supplements are not intended to treat, diagnose, prevent, or cure diseases,” according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “That means supplements should not make claims, such as ‘reduces pain’ or ‘treats heart disease.’ Claims like these can only legitimately be made for drugs, not dietary supplements.” In other words, supplements are just like drugs—in that you put them in your body. But unlike drugs, they don’t have to have measurable benefits. The bar for supplements is extremely low: basically, they just can’t be poison.
The Atlantic’s James Hamblin has a good explainer on how we got here, a huge and growing supplements industry that’s based on little more than wishful thinking.
“This expansive category was set forth in the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act of 1994, known as DSHEA,” Hamblin writes. “Backed by Senator Orrin Hatch and enormous investment from the supplement industry, the law allows any of these products to go directly to market and carry unfounded claims about what the product does. The burden is on the FDA to prove that the product is unsafe, if it later proves to be harming people, and then take the producer to court.”
But considering the amount of money that Americans spend on supplements—estimates range from $11 billion to almost $40 billion, which averages out to between about $30 and $120 per person per year—it’s clear that people don’t expect them to do nothing. We spend our hard-earned money on supplements because we want to be more healthy and less sick. Surely some people probably see, in their vitamins and herbal solutions, the promise of a cure.
And that’s what’s weird about Jones-branded supplements. As Vice’s Motherboard points out, Infowars makes its products appealing by tapping into people’s fears about Big Government. In this case, the idea is that government doesn’t want you to know about health cures, because it’s in bed with Big Pharma, which makes money by preying on the sick. The only way to buck the tyrannical system is to spend $59.95 on Caveman Pure Paleo Shake Powder.
Like all good lies, there’s some truth to it—you don’t have to reach very far to find examples of lobbyists weakening laws that protect public health. But the sinister thing is that, by selling the dubious supplements he sells through the Infowars store, Jones is doing the very thing he’s built his brand decrying. Namely, abusing power and influence to dupe people and take advantage of them. New York magazine makes a compelling case that Jones hardly makes any money from his “news” operation. The real revenue driver? Supplements.
Most people would agree that government regulation should protect us from unduly harmful products and especially predatory business practices. Should it protect people from wasting their money on products that are basically harmless? That depends on your point of view. In the end, perversely, the whole thing proves Alex Jones’ point: the government has turned its back on you on this one. With supplements, you’re on our own.