Hints of cancer benefits prompt ministry probe

The New Zealand Herald/February 13, 2003
By Angela Gregory

Claims that some dietary supplements are being touted as a potential cancer cure are being investigated by the Health Ministry.

In the past few weeks hundreds of people nationwide have attended presentations about nutritional products marketed by Mannatech and sold by multi-level (network) marketing.

Its flagship product, Ambrotose, is patented here, in Australia and Britain.

An Auckland man, who declined to be named, contacted the Herald about his concerns that a family member was wasting hundreds of dollars a month on Mannatech products for his mother, who is dying of cancer.

Mannatech does not officially claim it has a cancer cure but two distributors have told the Herald they believe it can stop the disease spreading, and they pass those views on to consumers.

A company spokesman said yesterday that Mannatech was aware of regulations surrounding the marketing of dietary supplements, and he had no reason to think they had been breached.

Mannatech's medical director of complementary medicine, American Dr Stephen Nugent, drew big crowds in main cities last week.

About 500 people packed the Stamford Plaza ballroom in Auckland, where Dr Nugent repeatedly referred to breast and child cancer as he explained the benefits of the products.

He never used the "cure" word but told the receptive crowd he could not say certain things because of the Government and its regulatory bodies.

The former US Marine, with doctorates in psychology and naturopathic medicine, knocked aspects of conventional medical wisdom.

But Dr Nugent also referred to medical studies to support the company's theories and said people were dying unnecessarily.

"Change your diet and take the right supplements - tell every human being you find or they will become victims of disease.

"This is deadly serious."

He told those present they had a moral duty to spread the message.

"Seriously, we have threats to our health we cannot minimise ... there are cancer clusters in suburbs of children ... new documentation shows children are getting heart disease.

"If you know what to do and don't do it, you will have to live with that.

"I've been at the wrong end of funerals ... Don't be the one who probably could have told them things to help."

A Northland woman who sells Mannatech products approached the Herald before the meeting and said she had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

The orchardist, in her early 60s, said the supplements had stopped her cancer from progressing and she had never felt better.

Other distributors had told her the products could halt cancer, and she passed that on to customers.

The woman said it was all scientifically proven, and people worldwide had reported cancer cures.

She understood she would eventually receive a passive income from Mannatech products. (In multi-level marketing a distributor recruits other sellers and takes a commission.)

"I only regret I did not get on to it first [in New Zealand]. That would have been fantastic."

A bottle of 60 Ambrotose capsules, about a month's supply, costs close to $70.

A leading Mannatech distributor, Mike Ridgway, said Ambrotose enabled the body to heal itself by boosting the immune system.

The Albany businessman said he knew of cancer sufferers with only days to live who had made remarkable improvements after taking the product.

Medsafe, the Health Ministry unit that assesses medicine safety, is following up the concerns raised and has warned people to ask themselves a few questions before buying the product.

Spokesman Peter Pratt said any advertising, whether written or spoken, that claimed a cancer cure was in breach of the Medical Act and would be treated very seriously. Individuals could face fines of up to $20,000.

He advised cancer patients to check with their doctor that the supplements did not interfere with their medication.

A Commerce Commission spokeswoman said it had also received concerned calls about the company's activities, but was still assessing whether it warranted an investigation.

From the Mannatech head office in Texas yesterday, the senior vice president of marketing, Brad Wayment, said the products were not promoted as a cancer treatment.

They were food supplements for which he acknowledged that no clinical trials had proved any benefit for cancer sufferers.

Mr. Wayment said Mannatech was aware of the health regulations and had no reasons to think they had been breached.

He said aspects of Dr Nugent's talk in Auckland, such as references to funerals, were not in the standard presentation material. "We don't endorse using scare tactics."

Mr. Wayment said Mannatech would follow up the concerns raised by the Herald, but would need proof before terminating contracts.

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