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What do Steve Bannon's Covid supplements and Gwyneth Paltrow's candles have in common?

Celebrities are using their star power to hawk evidence-free, ridiculous and sometimes even dangerous wellness products.
Image: Steve Bannon leaves court in New York on Aug. 20, 2020.
Steve Bannon leaves court in New York on Aug. 20, 2020.Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / AP file

As Americans try to push past the pandemic, a tsunami of sketchy products and suspect regimens threaten our health — though likely the only thing they purge is our bank accounts. From Trump buddy Steve Bannon’s vitamin “defense pack” to Gwyneth Paltrow’s apparently exploding vagina-scented candles, ever more celebrities are using their star power to hawk the evidence-free, the ridiculous or the downright dangerous.

During the coronavirus crisis, these pseudo-experts, using the same platforms that spread fake news, have tapped into crisis-driven fears to distract us.

Pandemic wellness gurus have found plenty of easy marks in the many people — a large portion of them women — who have legitimate gripes with America’s dysfunctional and profit-driven health care system. During the coronavirus crisis, these pseudo-experts, using the same platforms that spread fake news, have tapped into crisis-driven fears to distract us from getting appropriate treatment for our ailments. Instead, they persuade us that well-being is just one detox — and a whole bunch of dollars — away.

In the murky world of fake wellness, you’ll find Bannon, the conservative Svengali and self-proclaimed “wellness warrior,” promoting vitamin supplements on his website.He markets the War Room Defense Pack with the slogan, “You can’t fight if you’re sick!” Though the product’s website doesn’t explicitly describe it as a Covid-19 cure, its implications are clear — which is why the Justice Department has filed a complaint against Wellness Warrior, the company that manufactures the supplements, for deceptive advertising. (Bannon is not named in the suit.) Most people probably aren't reading the website's small print: "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."

Scientific evidence does not support using zinc and vitamin D3 supplements as a cure, or even a treatment, for the coronavirus. The website nonetheless offers anyone who orders a “free” vitamin sample a copy of the Bannon-branded “War Room Viral Defense Guide,” Mother Jones reported. Well, not exactly “free” — as the reporter found out when she had to fork over $10 for shipping. The “guide” she received was a list of dubious tips for building viral immunity — like ingesting pink Himalayan salt.

Remember Australian model Elle Macpherson? You may have seen photos of her canoodling with her boyfriend, thenotorious anti-vax doctor Andrew Wakefield, who has claimed the measles vaccine leads to autism. (Britain since banned him from practicing medicine for "multiple separate instances of serious professional misconduct.") Around the time that Pfizer and other companies began announcing their life-saving coronavirus vaccines, the model-turned-wellness-maven appeared on stage in America to promote anti-vax propaganda with Wakefield.

When she’s not peddling misinformation with her beau, Macpherson hawks dubious products through WelleCo, her nutrition and wellness brand. Her inventory includes the Super Booster, a powder made with “Kakadu plums” and touted to boost the immune system for a mere 90 bucks. She also gave her thumbs-up to a $15,000 lamp described as having coronavirus-fighting powers by celebrity chef and anti-vaxxer Pete Evans — who paid a hefty fine for his nonsense.

No discussion of celebrity wellness gurus would be complete without mention of actress and lifestyle queen Paltrow, owner of Goop Inc. Paltrow, who came down with Covid-19 early on and suffered some long-haul effects, informed her followers that she has turned to functional medicine practitioner Will Cole, who promotes his protocol for “intuitive fasting.” The regimen rests on unproven claims about the benefits of putting the body under “positive stress.”

Functional medicine more broadly is the latest alternative medicine trend that has been criticized for dressing up questionable claims in scientific-sounding terms.

Functional medicine more broadly is the latest alternative medicine trend that has been criticized for dressing up questionable claims in scientific-sounding terms.

David Gorski, a surgeon and scientist dedicated to exposing pseudoscience on the blog Science-Based Medicine, described it in 2016 as a fad that “combines the worst features of conventional medicine with a heapin’ helpin’ of quackery.” This sort of "quackery" can be particularly harmful during a global pandemic.

Gorski noted that celebrity functional medicine physician Mark Hyman, erstwhile medical adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton, teamed up with “rabid anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.” to write a book promoting the widely debunked vaccine-autism link.

In a 2008 blog post, another Science-Based Medicine writer laid out how some functional medicine practitioners have been known to lure people in with the plausible-sounding idea of “biochemical individuality.” Then come tons of useless tests and purported cures for every teensy abnormality — along with often baseless prescriptions delivered in what the post called “indecipherable babble and descriptive word salad.”

Pseudo-gurus want us to believe that our bodies are plagued by insidious “toxicities” and “imbalances” that only they can address. They’ve even concocted fake diseases like "adrenal fatigue" that come with unproven cures — involving a plethora of lab tests and smoothies.

Functional medics seem particularly obsessed with vitamin supplements. Despite the fact that, unless you have a proven deficiency, science says adding lab-created vitamin supplements to your diet (instead of getting them in healthy food) is unnecessary at best and harmful — even fatal — at worst.

Paltrow, meanwhile, is being sued by customers who say the $75 vagina-scented candle sold on her Goop website explodes. This is the latest head-scratcher from the celebrity whose company agreed to pay civil penalties in California after falsely claiming that women gain health benefits by inserting jade and quartz “eggs” in their vaginas. (Paltrow does not claim the candle has health benefits, which would be the height of irony. Regarding the alleged explosiveness, a Goop spokesperson told NBC News: “We’re confident this claim is frivolous and an attempt to secure an outsized payout from a press-heavy product. We stand behind the brands we carry and the safety of the products we sell.)

Are we now approaching peak nonsense?

It is true that the medical establishment has long been dismissive of vaginas and their ailments. Treatments abound for man-problems like erectile dysfunction. But serious female issues like, say, vaginal atrophy, a common condition in menopausal women, are not only rarely discussed but still frequently dismissed. Yet, this is a real problem that a quartz egg can’t begin to fix.

Instead of gobbling down unnecessary pills and powders, we need access to reliable information — and responsible media platforms that help stem the tide of false claims that could be hazardous to our health.

We also need our government representatives to stand up against the regulatory Wild West now overseeing — or rather not overseeing — alternative medicine and dietary supplements. Of course, it would also help if the United States finally built a health care system that is driven by, well, health — one that could restore the lost trust now driving us to crackpot cures.

Everybody wants to feel good. We long for somebody to communicate with us about our bodies and psyches in a way that is empowering and validating. But we don’t need fake wellness sages playing on our frustrations to sell us snake oil.

The wellness industry is worth trillions of dollars. Too bad so much of what it touts isn’t worth a plug nickel.