Tom Blackwell, National Post
Published: Saturday, April 29, 2006
Christy Jones just wanted to lose a little weight. Her simple wish may well have killed her.
The seemingly healthy 26-year-old office clerk passed out in her Detroit workplace in August, 2002, shuddered briefly, and died, succumbing to a fatal case of arrhythmia, an erratically beating heart.
As the mother of two small boys struck the floor, a bottle of pills spilled out of her pocket.
The tablets, containing the herb ephedra, were marketed at the time as a natural and safe weight-loss product. But some experts would later blame the supplements for the woman's death, as fears grew that ephedra, far from being a harmless stimulant, was triggering scores of heart attacks, strokes and deaths.
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"My little boy used to wake up in the middle of the night screaming, screaming and crying," Hasani Jones, the woman's husband, said in an interview recently. "A lot of times my older son still comes to me and says he misses his Mommy up there."
Mr. Jones alleges that the young mother's untimely demise was the fault of a Canadian company. Her ephedra pills -- a market-leader called Hydroxycut -- were produced by Muscletech Research and Development, a little-known but remarkably successful Toronto-area firm later sued by the young widower, and by almost 100 other Americans who claimed the pills had done serious harm.
Muscletech's largely untold saga is a veritable Horatio Alger tale, with the corporation's 33-year-old owner, Paul Gardiner of Mississauga, in the lead role. Mr. Gardiner parlayed a high school education and interest in body-building into a company that grossed as much as $350-million a year and made him countless millions personally.
Earlier this year, however, Muscletech sought bankruptcy protection, arguing the slew of lawsuits has sapped its resources and left it insolvent. None of the suits has gone to trial, but about two-thirds have been settled out of court.
The company has, meanwhile, moved most of its assets to a new firm, Iovate Health Sciences.
It continues to argue the ephedra pills, taken off the market three years ago and banned in Canada and the United States, did not make people sick. A U.S. government report has acknowledged there is no definitive proof it causes life-threatening side effects, and a judge recently restricted the U.S. ban on ephedra.
"Muscletech is confident that the evidence in these cases will establish that its products were researched and tested by leading academics and professional researchers and that all of its products are safe and effective when used in accordance with directions," said Thomas Ringe, the company's Philadelphia-based lawyer.
As those personal-injury cases progress, though, striking evidence has emerged of Muscletech's paucity of scientific know-how, massaging of its own unflattering research data on Hydroxycut and iffy marketing techniques.
The latter included an early magazine spread in which a buff Mr. Gardiner passed himself off as an independent participant in a study of the firm's pills. Another ad featured a before-and-after picture of a woman who claimed to have lost 35 lbs. on the supplement. The copy did not mention she was Marla Duncan, a fitness model, and that the "before" picture was taken just after she had given birth, says Jeff Bauer, a Philadelphia lawyer who spearheaded a handful of product-liability cases against the firm.
By gosh, this was the American rags-to-riches story. God Bless [Mr. Gardiner]," says Leonard Fodera, another U.S. lawyer who handled several Muscletech suits.
"But, even though he was shown time after time that he had a product that was doing harm to people, he refused to acknowledge it and refused to modify it, until he had to."
Mr. Gardiner has testified that his dream was to sell "products that truly do work," a goal that also enriched him handsomely.
The son of a factory worker in Brampton, Mr. Gardiner was driving a Porsche a few years after leaving high school, became a millionaire well before 30 and eventually bought his working-class parents cars and a new home.
"He always said from when he was young that he was going to be a millionaire ... 'My whole family will be very well off. We're not going to be struggling in life.' And lo and behold, he did it," recalls Mark Fredenburg, a close friend since Grade 4.
"The guy made his first million when he was 23 years old, and nobody could believe it. He went from being an average guy running a muscle store to being a multi-millionaire. It was just a big shock to everyone who knew him."
Mr. Gardiner started working at the MuscleMag shop, selling supplements and other paraphernalia to fellow bodybuilders, when he was 15 and kept the job after graduating from Brampton's Chinguacousy High School. He also started a carpet cleaning business, before settling on a venture closer to his heart. Mr. Gardiner had already been reading extensively about vitamins and supplements.
"Throughout my entire high school years, I wasn't the guy who went to dances and went on dates and stuff," he said in one deposition. "I was the shy guy who sat at home reading books and magazines about health all night."
He was also being tutored in the business of bodybuilding supplements and their marketing by Robert Kennedy, owner of the MuscleMag magazine and retail empire, who saw his acolyte as "the son he never had," said one former Muscletech employee.
In 1995, Mr. Gardiner came up with formulas for three natural bodybuilding supplements, including Hydroxycut, a mixture of ephedra, caffeine and other ingredients. Pharmaceutical companies typically invest hundreds of millions in research and testing of new drugs before they make a cent of profit. Natural health products are virtually unregulated in the United States, and face less-stringent regulation than drugs in Canada.
Mr. Gardiner told lawyers that Hydroxycut's ingredients were largely based on a pill already on the market -- TwinLab's Diet Fuel -- as well as two books by authors Larry Hobbes and Edmund Ford. He certainly had no training in pharmacology, toxicology, medicine or any related field, he acknowledged.
"It did seem kind of unusual. We all wondered 'How did you come up with this formula?' " said Mr. Fredenburg, the long-time friend.
Mr. Gardiner ordered sample pills made up by a company in New Jersey, then offered them free to a few customers at the store. That was the extent of his pre-market trials, he said in depositions, though a 1995 ad referred to a "three-month intensive study" for pills developed "with no regard to cost." When rave reviews came back, he started selling the supplements by mail order from his home.
The products took off, perhaps helped by some early -- and questionable -- publicity. A glossy Canadian bodybuilding magazine owned by Mr. Kennedy featured articles about Muscletech quoting a fictitious owner of the company -- Paul G. Newman -- and testimonials from Paul Gardiner himself, who claimed to be an impartial participant in a Muscletech study. Not surprisingly, the "skeptical" Mr. Gardiner reported amazing results, illustrated by impressive before-and-after pictures.
Stuart Lowther, Muscletech's director of research until 2002, says he enjoyed working for the company, calls its owner a great businessman and would not comment directly on his experience there. But he said he simply had to leave the industry.
"It still lacks regulation by the FDA and Health Canada and the bottom line is the majority of products they put on their shelves don't have pure clinical research to support them," he said. "They use over-exaggerated claims -- Muscletech does it and so does everybody else -- to sell their products.... Unfortunately, it's a lot of B.S."
Yet Hydroxycut became so popular -- with sales doubling annually in the first few years -- the pills were soon being sold out of hundreds of stores across North America. RSM Richter, the court-appointed "monitor" for the bankruptcy-protection proceedings, says Muscletech's revenue peaked in 2002 at $350-million. About 40% of those sales were of Hydroxycut, Mr. Gardiner said in depositions.
From 2000 on, all before-tax profits were paid as bonuses to Mr. Gardiner, a tax-reduction strategy. He often loaned some of the money back to the firm, which then reimbursed him. The bonus for 2003, after sales had already started to dip, totalled $49-million, of which $23-million was paid in tax.
Mr. Gardiner recently paid for about 50 of his friends and family to attend his wedding at the exclusive Ocean Club resort in Nassau, where rooms range from $500 to $800 a night.
In an industry where the raw ingredients of supplements are generally not covered by any patent, it is the marketing of the combination of ingredients that makes all the difference, noted the report by RSM Richter.
Plaintiff lawyers say Muscletech raised the concept of before-and-after pictures to an art, using bodybuilders who were normally "ripped" but for various reasons had temporarily gained a few pounds. Or, in Marla Duncan's case, had gained a baby.
"You're dealing with genetic freaks, basically," Mr. Bauer said of the models. "And you get Suzie Homemaker who thinks, 'I'm going to look like that from taking these pills.' "
Christy Jones, 5-foot-7 and about 165 lbs., started popping Hydroxycut, says husband Hasani, after seeing a TV commercial for the pills showing "a lady getting out of a pool" who had supposedly lost considerable weight after taking the pills.
Muscletech was also an industry-leader in producing magazine ads that looked like articles, sometimes even with fictitious bylines, says a former company employee who now works for a competitor.
"I was actually trained by Paul Gardiner and Bob Kennedy themselves on how to deceive consumers into thinking this was in fact editorial, not an ad."
Muscletech at its height was spending $10-million a year on ads in just two American bodybuilding magazines, according to a court-sealed deposition cited in the Los Angeles Times last year.
Mr. Bauer says Muscletech has filed about 450,000 pages of documents in its various lawsuits that, though still under court seal, reveal in detail the firm's marketing techniques and training.
"If you could gain access to them, it would be the story of all stories," the lawyer said. "It would be the biggest 60 Minutes piece that you've ever seen."
What is exposed in those documents, says John Tiedt, the California lawyer who filed the first lawsuit against Muscletech, is "far more spectacular" than evidence against Cytodyne Technologies. In a class-action decision in 2003, a California jury ordered U.S.-based Cytodyne to pay $12.5-million for false advertising of its own ephedra pills.
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