The Herbalife Hepatitis Club – take two*


Let us discuss the trials and tribulations of those of us suffering with excess weight. Last month reports revealed that six people in Iceland had been hospitalized between 1999 and 2006 with hepatitis allegedly caused by Herbalife products they were taking. (According to reports on from January 13 and 15, 2007, doctors said they suspected poisonous herbs in Herbalife products, which the patients had consumed, may had caused the hepatitis.)

Well, welcome to the Herbal Hepatitis Club. Next time you want to lose weight, and rather than doing it the old-fashioned way (eat less, exercise more) you’d prefer to pop pills, check out a paper presented at Digestive Diseases Week 2006 (DDW is the world's largest gathering of physicians and researchers in the fields of gastroenterology, hepatology, endoscopy and gastrointestinal surgery) on the subject of Herbalife products and necrosis of the liver.

“A woman can’t be too rich or too thin,” said Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor and Nicole Richie of her age, which was before Herbalife. Herbalife, in case you don’t know, is a pyramid marketing company that sells nutritional products and litters utility poles with fliers promising both riches and thinness.

This combination has proven irresistible to many, especially us Icelanders. We are always trying to make money on the side, despite enjoying the highest standard of living the country, even the world, has ever known, because we just never have enough. So what could be better than making money through losing weight, your own or somebody else’s? It’s a fantastic concept which plays to our deepest insecurities and greed.

Have you ever been approached by a Herbalife hawker? If you’re an Icelander, you must have. Every Icelander over the age of four has either been a Herbalife pusher or purchaser. The Herbalife people are somewhat aggressive (the Timeshares people have nothing on them) and believe that no matter your health or weight you need more pills, Herbalife pills of course.

You cannot hide from them. Sooner or later one of them will find you and hint at impending calamities that will befall you if you don’t immediately begin to consume USD 350 worth of Herbalife weekly.

Herbalife hawker: Ms. Lee, I want to talk to you about your weight problem. Ms. Lee, I think it’s obvious that we are almost talking obese here…

Ms. Lee: Well jeez, I’ve perhaps gained ten pounds in the last decade, but I don’t think that is anything unusual considering my age and...

Herbalife hawker: Frankly Ms. Lee, it is my belief that you are demonstrating incredible irresponsibility and undermanagement of this dire situation.

Ms. Lee: We’re talking ten pounds here; I can’t really see why I should be spending almost USD 400 a month to…

Herbalife hawker: Ms. Lee, I have it on very good authority that if you don’t fit into these size 0 jeans within 6 ½ days, you will be passed over for that promotion and your children will end up on the streets eating rotten fish and sour skyr. I really think we should have a frank discussion about this, Ms. Lee.

Ms. Lee: For chrissake, it’s…

Herbalife hawker: Ms. Lee, just this morning I met with a woman exactly in your situation. She thought she didn’t need Herbalife. Well, let me tell you, four hours after I left her, she was hit by an avalanche and her body was eaten by monster penguins and Adolf Hitler bombed her apartment. Ms. Lee, I can assure you that if you were to walk away without signing up for Herbalife, exactly that will happen to you.

You may also receive phone calls:

Herbalife hawker: May I speak with Ms. Lee?

Ms. Lee: She doesn’t live here.

Herbalife hawker: Who is this?

Ms. Lee: This is Osama bin Laden

Herbalife hawker: Ms. Bin Laden, I think it’s plain that you really need to have a frank look at your weight pro…

Like every Icelander, I have a Herbalife story. One of my best friends got involved with Herbalife and so I dutifully signed up and bought some stuff. I also did want to shed the 0.3 pounds I had accumulated on my left butt cheek after OD-ing on lettuce leaves at the Ivy (this was in L.A. where it is widely believed that a normal 30-year-old 5.5” female should weigh 88 pounds).

A few days later I received a call from a fellow Icelander who had just been to one of Herbalife’s fundamentalist-camp-like presentations. Since I was studying Chinese herbal medicine at the time, he wanted to know if I knew anything about the products and what I thought of them.

Well I don’t know... I really don’t know much about the products, I said, but honestly I don’t think that the average person needs to be spending hundreds of dollars a month on shakes or pills - and I don’t care who makes them - to stay healthy or lose weight.

There’s also something about the motivation behind pyramid marketing (greed) that just doesn’t seem to generate in me the kind of feeling (trust) that I like to have toward persons who dispense pharmacological agents to me, modern medicine or herbal. I’m not so sure, I said to him.

Besides, anybody seemed to be selling this, and four years of Chinese herbal medicine studies had taught me that just because herbs are “natural” didn’t necessarily mean they couldn’t cause substantial bodily harm. I don’t know much about western pharmacology - well, actually I probably do know more about it than the average Herbalife dealer, because we had to take lots and lots of western medical training in TCM school - but I still don’t think that would qualify me to tell people what to take for their kidney disease or heart condition. Sometimes you just have to say to people, sorry, I just haven’t gotten around to taking the weekend brain surgery course…

But Herbalife doesn’t seem to be too bothered by the cases that have been reported and linked to their products. A Herbalife news release sent to Icelandic media, published on on January 16, 2007, says “the few cases that have come to their attention have been studied by doctors on Herbalife’s advisory board” – oh man, that makes me feel so good, docs on Herbalife’s payroll telling me how safe and wonderful for my health their stuff is.

In any case, the Herbalife people say, the cases that have been reported to the company involved “underlying causes” like “alcoholism, diabetes, obesity…” (Hmmm… should one deduce that obese individuals should not take the products?)

But anyhow, you get the picture – hey it’s not our products that are making you sick, you fat, drunken suckers!

And they laugh all the way to the bank.

ÍEL - [email protected]

Íris Erlingsdóttir Lee is an Icelandic writer and doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine who has lived in the US for 15 years. She is married to an American and has three children. Lee has worked for various media outlets in Iceland and the US and has written for American publications, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune and L.A. Weekly.

*This article was originally published on on January 28, but was removed the next day due to lack of citations to sources. The article has now been revised and the author supports her arguments with citations from various articles, to which links are provided.

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.