OILY

Honey Boo Boo, Snake Oil, and Ebola: The Weird World of Young Living Essential Oils

Claiming to be useful against Ebola, autism, and cancer, Young Living Essential Oils came under fire from the FDA. Now Honey Boo Boo’s sister is the company’s latest spokeswoman.

What do you get when you cross a lethal viral infection with an ambitious product pitchman who can smell a sucker from 100 paces?

A FDA investigation.

That veteran killjoy, the US Food and Drug Administration, charged with protecting the health of US citizens, pulled the magic carpet out from underneath D Gary Young and his on-line company, Young Living. Young Living traffics in essential oils designed to help relax and rejuvenate. The “Young” in the product echoes both his name and the desire of purchasers to swim in the fountain of youth—clever, eh?

Prior to the FDA sticking its big Nanny State schnoz into the fun, however, Young Living also claimed to be useful against an array of medical problems, including Ebola, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, diabetes, heart disease, and dementia.

But the FDA issued the company a bureaucratic fatwa, noting that the health claims for their products “cause(s) them [the essential oils] to be drugs under section 201(g)(1)(B) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act) [21 U.S.C. § 321(g)(1)(B)], because they are intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.” And that was the real bad news for Young Living, because a drug has to be studied and claims verified. You know, honesty in advertising, safe use of products, all that crap. In other words, the health claims had to be removed—which they have been.

If that weren’t bad enough, Young Living somehow reached out to poor Anna Cardwell of the reality series Here Comes Honey Boo Boo to be a spokesperson. Cardwell apparently has fallen on hard times and so accepted the offer.

Cardwell might have been well advised to read up on the entire enterprise. A simple look around the Internet finds much to worry about in the world of essential oils. A thorough review of D Gary Young and his company by Dr. Eva Briggs and Quackwatch made many claims (PDF) beyond the usual huckster problem. Sure the products were claiming too much and the understanding of science was poor, but Quackwatch went after Young himself.

It must be noted that in the company’s literature, there appears to be an uncomfortable cult of personality around Young; for example, his first-person story on the website says he was a hard-working logger who had a terrible accident many years ago, rendering him paralyzed. It was only by eating and drinking certain juices, the story says, that he got out of the wheelchair and regained the ability to walk. Dr. Briggs, however, found evidence to refute every word of Young’s life-story.

His acolytes, some of whom refer to themselves as “health freedom fighters” are undeterred by this sort of jealous shoptalk. They are true believers and appear to love working for the man. In fact, they have produced at least one counter-attack on Young’s accusers (PDF) claiming that Quackwatch is itself a site of quacks run by a quack for the perverse enjoyment of quack-Americans. As with all cyber-wars, one can only shrug when trying to determine just what the truth is, but the claims against Young sound more credible than those against Quackwatch.

In the cloud of vagueness, what is perfectly clear is that the tack taken by Young and Young Living is a very old one: the energetic upstarts, be they faith healers or nutritionists or chiropractors or naturopaths, run into the thick-walled fortress of the modern healthcare, with its armies of self-satisfied self-promoters. Indeed, the Big Three—hospitals, doctors, and the pharmaceutical industry—are an attractive target as they are easily cast as bloated, greedy, and insincere. Plus the notion of the poor little guy surrounded by a rag-tag pack of true believers is an American favorite.

But let’s be clear—the “natural health” industry is anything but a little guy. In 2009, the last year an estimate was made, 83 million US adults spent $33.9 billion on complementary or alternative medicine, called “CAM” in government speak, representing 11.2 percent of total out-of-pocket US expenditures on health care. Though it is only 1 percent of the overall 3 trillion dollars spent in the US, $33.9 billion still goes a long way. And an industry this large and this durable should no longer be allowed to whine over how it is being pushed around and ignored, or forced to do unconventional things, like study their products scrupulously and square their claims with what their label says. The time has come for them to accept modern science.

The further forward bare-boned science goes, however, the more forceful the counter- response. Now, in the greatest age of science ever, Americans are debating whether Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs. More destructively, those embracing the majority opinion (i.e., that essential oils don’t cure autism) are viewed as thugs and opportunists if not empty-headed lemmings afraid to examine their world. This inversion, where the little guys with the absurd ideas draw sympathy while the majority with real facts at hand becomes a schoolyard bully, is a threat to the country’s health, education, and welfare. And that’s something for which even Young Living with its magic potions has no remedy.