In November, as Reno County, Kansas, weathered its worst-yet wave of COVID-19, an unusual guest took the lectern at a county commission meeting. The woman, dressed in sunny yellow, described herself as a local mother there to discuss health in the pandemic era.
“I’m also privileged to represent the top two percent of the world’s largest essential oil company, doTERRA, which means ‘gift of the earth,’” she said in a presentation previously reported by the Kansas Reflector. “My job is to empower people to use safe, natural, 100 percent pure essential oils to manage their families’ needs proactively.”
She began to continue, only to be cut off. “Ma’am, if this is an advertisement, I think you need to do something else,” Commissioner Ron Hirst said.
But Mark Steffen, another county commissioner, intervened. “It’s not an advertisement,” he said. “This is not an advertisement. I asked her to come to talk about other options to help people be prepared to take care of themselves, so no, this is not an advertisement.”
DoTERRA is a multi-level marketing (MLM) company, one of hundreds of such businesses that encourage people not just to buy its products (in this case, mostly “essential oils”) but also to sell the products themselves and to recruit others to sell too. When COVID-19 struck the U.S. last year, retailers at doTERRA and other MLMs hawked their companies as a solution, either for their products’ purported medical benefits or for the potential to be self-employed during a pandemic.
In reality, the products weren't a miracle cure for either problem. The Federal Trade Commission issued a stern warning to doTERRA and other MLMs, noting that their products could not be advertised as COVID treatments. And a 2017 Consumer Awareness Institute analysis of 350 MLMs alleged that 99 percent of participants actually lost money.
Elected officials taking part in or else flogging questionable businesses is a long, bipartisan tradition in American politics. But as COVID-19 outlasts the Trump presidency, politicians with questionable virus stances are going to bat for risky businesses hyped as potentially offering a measure of viral relief.
Steffen, the Reno County commissioner who invited the doTERRA salesperson to give a presentation, is now a GOP state senator. In Georgia, a Republican state representative who was recently ejected from session for refusing a COVID-19 test describes himself on LinkedIn as a promoter for something called “NeoLife.” And in Virginia, a GOP state senator who refused to wear a protective face mask also declined to take a COVID-19 test while ill, with a spokesperson citing a “healthy lifestyle” as a “coach” for a multi-level beverage retailer.
“I would call it an escalation,” Robert FitzPatrick, an expert on MLMs and president of Pyramid Scheme Alert, a watchdog group, told The Daily Beast of the trend. FitzPatrick, who said the very structure of MLMs means that most participants won’t turn a profit, has been sounding the alarm for decades about these companies.
“Since then it’s gone further,” he said. “And the new level is that politicians.... are involved directly and personally.”
Steffen, who did not return a request for comment, does not appear to personally sell or profit from doTERRA products. Still, he has voiced counter-scientific claims about COVID-19, the Reflector noted. After joining the state Senate in January, he promoted hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that the Food and Drug Administration recalled as a possible COVID-19 treatment last June. Elsewhere, he voiced skepticism about a COVID vaccine, declined to wear a face mask in legislative session, and accused Kansas’ Democratic governor of manipulating COVID-19 test results to inflate positive cases.
Do you know something we should about the far right and coronavirus? Email Kelly.Weill@TheDailyBeast.com or securely at email@example.com from a non-work device.
When Reno County commissioners questioned his choice to invite a doTERRA salesperson to give the presentation in November, Steffen told his peers that “I’m not going to bow to your wishes. Under any circumstance.” The salesperson continued with her pitch, which was broadcast on local news, and promoted an “immune support” (“which is like putting my body in a bubble”).
As COVID-19 sent Americans scuttling for miracle cures and new income sources, some MLMs retooled their sales pitches. Although doTERRA sells a sanitizing spray, potentially helpful at combating germs, its salespeople have promoted its famous “essential oils” as a COVID treatment. “Just received a new batch of doTERRA On Gaurd essential oil, so I am ready for you Corona Virus,” [sic] one salesperson posted at the beginning of the pandemic, according to Vox.
Essential oils have no proven medical benefits, besides potential use in relaxing aromatherapy. But nearly a year into the pandemic, doTERRA salespersons appeared to still be promoting the liquids as a health fix. In one disturbing public post viewed by The Daily Beast, a self-described doTERRA salesperson claimed to have had COVID complications that led her to spend seven weeks in the hospital, with three heart surgeries, which left her unable to stand. “If the Veil continues to come close and thin again know you NEED DOTERRA Essential Oils!” she wrote.
A doTERRA spokesperson told The Daily Beast that its salespeople are not supposed to make COVID-19 claims about its products. "doTERRA does not claim that our products treat, cure or prevent any diseases. During this time, we are particularly sensitive to any health claims associated with the novel coronavirus, and demand that our Wellness Advocates be vigilant in avoiding such claims in their sharing and marketing efforts," the spokesperson said.
According to experts and the federal government, MLMs pose a significant financial risk to customers. The companies encourage participants to sell products—essential oils, leggings, supplemental health powders—directly to friends and family, or to recruit those acquaintances as “downline” salespeople, and receive a cut of their sales profits.
In reality, almost no one makes any money. “You cannot, in real life, from your home on your own, by yourself, sell weight loss, powders, lipstick, leggings, in any sustainable manner in the 21st century,” FitzPatrick told The Daily Beast. “You can’t. You couldn’t since around 1960, actually, because people don’t need you as a salesperson” in the age of shopping malls and e-commerce.
Many MLM participants lose money buying bulk products that they struggle to sell, or signing up for training and support programs that never pay off. FitzPatrick said he had seen marriages ruined and people dead of suicide due to financial ruin from the companies.
In some cases, MLM and similar companies’ own documents reveal that a small percentage of participants account for almost all wins.
One such internal document for potential sellers comes from “NeoLife,” a health supplement company. In a short internal report, NeoLife disclosed that, in 2016, 78.6 percent of its “club members” did not turn a profit. The company described these members as only joining the company to buy products for themselves. Another 15.1 percent were attempting to build a network of sellers, but had earned less than $500 (an average $143). Only 6.3 percent of members were earning more than $500 from their networks—and most of them making considerably less than a living wage. (Less than 0.23 percent of NeoLife members earned more than the 2016 median U.S. income from the company that year.)
Those figures haven’t deterred David Clark, a state representative from Georgia, from selling NeoLife. Clark’s LinkedIn lists him as a “NeoLife Club Promoter” since 2013, and he has appeared on the company’s Instagram, the New Yorker’s Charles Bethea previously noted.
Reached by phone, Clark told The Daily Beast that selling NeoLife products actually made him a better politician.
“It gives me even more support, not having pressure from leadership, the establishment, or lobbyists, because it’s my own business,” Clark told The Daily Beast, claiming that he was now less beholden to political pressures. “If I lose my next election and have to step down, I’m not looking for my next job.” Though he declined to state how much he earned from NeoLife Club, he said he had not increased his sales since becoming a lawmaker.
Clark took office as a political newcomer without an election in 2014, taking over the seat from his brother Josh, who now lists himself on Facebook as a NeoLife “VP of Sales North America.” Recently, Rep. Clark made headlines for refusing to take a COVID-19 test, earning him expulsion from a legislative session by fellow Republicans. (Clark previously told the Times that he objected to lawmakers having easier access than other Georgians to COVID-19 tests, and that his expulsion came after a feud with a fellow Republican.)
Clark said he did not promote NeoLife products as a COVID-19 cure. “We’ve heard it boosts your immune system,” he claimed, adding that the product and exercise “helps you live longer, helps you be more vibrant.” But when it comes to using the supplements to stop COVID, “there’s no guarantees.”
NeoLife did not return a request for comment.
At least one other state-level politician, however, has suggested via a spokesperson that her MLM-based supplements could prevent contraction of the virus.
When Virginia State Senator Amanda Chase became ill with a sinus infection in December, a spokesperson told The Daily Beast that she would not take a COVID-19 test.
“She works out five days a week on top of this along with a super healthy diet as a Shakeology coach,” a spokesperson texted The Daily Beast at the time.
Shakeology is a health shake sold by the MLM company Beachbody. The company describes its salespeople as “coaches” who rise in rank from humble “coach” to “emerald” and “ruby” coaches, until finally reaching as high as “15 star diamond coach.” A Chase spokesperson did not return a request for clarification on Chase’s specific gemstone rank or lack thereof. Beachbody did not return a request for comment.
Chase, meanwhile, has falsely claimed that COVID-19 is a Chinese bioweapon, and has refused to wear a mask in legislative session, causing her to have to sit in a plexiglass containment area.
On Thursday, a volunteer for Chase’s gubernatorial campaign told the Virginia Scope that a fellow campaigner had tested positive for COVID-19, and that the campaign had not alerted volunteers of potential exposure. The Chase campaign told the outlet that the volunteer’s account of events was “fake news.”
This article has been updated with comment from doTERRA.