Store selling Scientology vitamin regimen raises concerns
By GEOFF DOUGHERTY
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 1999
NEW PORT RICHEY -- Two members of the state physician's board are questioning whether a health-food store with ties to Scientology is practicing medicine illegally by offering a church-sanctioned vitamin regimen.
The treatment, called "purification rundown," is one of the first steps Scientologists take upon joining the church. Church members tout the rundown as a purifying routine that enables people to kick drug abuse and "think more clearly and have more energy." Some physicians, and a former Scientologist interviewed by the Times, call it dangerous and ineffective.
At a recent informational session, the owners of Pure Health on W Main Street told visitors that the rundown could avert the need for cardiac bypass surgery, treat kidney failure and alleviate eye problems.
One of the owners -- who acknowledged having no traditional medical training -- said she sometimes "weaned" clients from their prescription medication in preparation for the program.
To Dr. Emilio Echevarria, a member of the state Board of Medicine, those statements raise concerns about whether Pure Health broke the law.
"There may be a violation," he said. "The state might say, in essence, "You're practicing medicine.' I certainly would look at that very closely."
Franchise of the church
The Board of Medicine regulates medical practice in the state. Echevarria was interviewed by the Times Wednesday night as the newspaper prepared to publish a report on Pure Health's vitamin program and ties to the Church of Scientology
Although Pure Health does not advertise any connection with the church, the purification rundown is a trademarked service of Scientology that can only be offered with the consent of the church.
Pure Health, which store owner Ron Howarth described as a franchise, pays 10 percent of its earnings from purification to an arm of the church.
The purification rundown -- sometimes used as a recruiting tool by the church -- has been questioned by doctors.
One of them is Ronald Gots, a Maryland toxicologist who reviewed the procedure at the request of city officials in Shreveport, La. Firefighters there underwent the treatment at city expense after they were exposed to carcinogens.
"I just found that it was useless," Gots said in a telephone interview. "Useless and fraudulent, considering the claims that were made. And very expensive."
The program also calls for administration of up to 5 grams a day of niacin -- a dose that Gots said is dangerous.
"That is a very large dose. It is potentially a toxic dose. Two grams a day causes serious complications."
Howarth and co-owner Brenda Dyer said their program has been proven safe and effective. Moreover, they said, clients are never told that purification can cure illness.
"I am not practicing medicine," said Dyer.
Patients at risk
Echevarria is not the first person to question whether church members have overstepped their bounds in offering health care. Last year the Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney's Office charged the church with the unlicensed practice of medicine in the case of Lisa McPherson, a Clearwater woman who died after a lengthy stay at the Fort Harrison Hotel
That case is awaiting trial.
State Attorney Bernie McCabe declined to offer an opinion on whether Pure Health had broken the same law. He said his office would probably take guidance from the Board of Medicine.
Echevarria said it's hard to tell whether Pure Health's program violates the law. But the statements made at the store's informational meeting, Echevarria said, warrant a close look. Of particular concern, he said, are promises about treatment results that are not substantiated by scientific research.
Further, Echevarria said non-doctors who tinker with a patient's prescription doses can produce tragic results.
"You're putting the patient at risk," Echevarria said. "What knowledge does she (Dyer) have to take someone off medications that have been prescribed by a licensed practitioner?"
Jogging and saunas
The purification rundown was first detailed in a book by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. In the book, Hubbard claims that ultra-high doses of niacin, coupled with a weeks-long routine of jogging and saunas, can rid the body of dangerous toxins
The program is based on the idea that those toxins are stored in fat and can be sweated out of the body in a sauna.
Others question the science behind the program and say it can lead to health problems.
Robert E. Geary, an Ohio dentist and former Scientologist, underwent the treatment with his wife.
"She was in okay shape, but she wasn't an athlete. She was losing sleep and having hallucinations, and they were saying, "Oh, that's good,' " Geary said in a telephone interview.
Geary said his wife eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized.
When an organization linked to Scientology sought approval from Oklahoma regulators to offer a drug-treatment program that relied heavily on purification rundown, Geary wrote to state officials.
"As a health care practitioner that has participated in their so-called purification rundown . . . I would say it is bunk," Geary wrote. "I consider their treatment unscientific and dangerous."
In 1991, the Oklahoma Board of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services refused to approve the treatment program, calling it "unsafe and ineffective," according to a report in the Tulsa Tribune.
Several lawsuits have been filed against Scientology by families who blame purification programs for the death of a relative. In Portland, Ore., the parents of Christopher Arbuckle, 25, filed suit after he took a purification rundown course.
Arbuckle died after his liver failed. His parents settled out of court for an undisclosed amount and agreed not to discuss the case.
Ronald Gots, who works for the International Center for Toxicology and Medicine in Rockville, Md., said he was contracted by the city of Shreveport, La. Firefighters there thought they had been exposed to PCBs on the job and persuaded the city to pay for the purification rundown.
Gots reviewed their cases at the request of the insurer and found that PCB levels in the firefighters' bodies had actually gone up during the purification rundown.
"I think it's scientifically fallacious to say that you can remove toxic substances from the body this way," Gots said. "Materials stored in fat are not going to be removed in the sweat. It makes no sense."
Despite that, Dyer aggressively defends the validity of purification. She provided the Times with a sheaf of studies on the program's effectiveness.
She agreed that the amount of niacin administered during purification can be dangerous.
But the purification's sauna-and-jogging component allows clients to sweat out excess amounts of the vitamin, thereby preventing liver damage, Dyer said.
The small group that attended the meeting at the New Port Richey store was also not told about the controversy surrounding purification rundown. One woman asked Dyer: "Have you ever had any failures?"
"No," Dyer replied.
At that meeting, visitors heard testimonials about the rundown's purifying effects
Howarth said he completed the program four years ago after finding that he had high concentrations of heavy metals in his hair.
The rundown removed those concentrations, he said.
Howarth said the program can also have value for heart patients.
"If you do this, you can avoid bypass surgery," he said.
Dyer said a wide variety of health problems can be attributed to the kind of impurities that the program purges.
"Cancer and AIDS are the final stages of toxic overload," Dyer said.
Addressing an elderly visitor who said she had recently experienced kidney failure, Dyer suggested the woman try the program.
"You need to do something about your toxins," Dyer said.
Dyer said she has years of experience in the alternative medicine community and has advised clients preparing for the rundown to discontinue the use of drugs prescribed by doctors.
"Sometimes I wean someone off of their medication," she said.
When the Times asked Echevarria and fellow Board of Medicine member Dr. John W. Glotfelty to review those statements, the physicians both suggested an investigation would be in order.
"It sounds to me like they are diagnosing," said Glotfelty. "My concern is that they're practicing medicine without a license."
Allen Grossman, the assistant attorney general who handles legal matters for the board, agreed.
"I think the board would be very concerned with any non-physician interfering with treatment prescribed by a licensed physician," he said.
Grossman added that some of Pure Health's claims about the results obtained by purification clients could merit investigation.
"Those would be more of a consumer-fraud issue," he said.
In an interview last week, Dyer and Howarth said only one client has completed the purification rundown at the New Port Richey store. And they strongly denied practicing medicine without a license
While they reeled off a list of medical conditions that can be helped by purification rundown -- kidney disease, liver disease, obesity -- they said clients are always told the main benefits of the program are spiritual.
When Dyer's clients express an interest in reducing the amount of prescription drugs they take, Dyer said she usually tells them to see a physician. But Dyer acknowledged that in at least one instance, she had "weaned" someone off medication without the help of a doctor. In that case, Dyer said, her advice came from the pages of the Physician's Desk Reference, a manual on prescription drugs.
"One time I took someone off of thyroid medication. She wanted to go off it. She didn't want to go back to her doctor," Dyer said. "I pulled out the book . . . and I said, "This is what you would have to do.' "
The patient followed that advice and later received approval from her physician, Dyer said.
While acknowledging that she prefers that clients see a doctor to make medication changes, Dyer said she is willing to help patients who have decided not to return to their doctor.
"If people want to come to me, and they want to do it on their own, that's up to them," Dyer said. "They have to know the seriousness of getting off something on their own, and if there's any side effects. Certain drugs, you can have problems."
When it comes to recommending purification for specific health problems, Dyer and Howarth draw two distinctions between their statements and the offering of medical advice. They never promise patients that purification rundown will cure an illness.
And, Howarth said, they are merely advocating the use of vitamins and foods -- not prescription drugs.
While offering those cautions, Dyer defended the practice of telling clients that medical problems can improve after purification.
"This is not a medical treatment. . . ." Dyer said. "I'm not prescribing drugs. It's just common-sense thing. It's like friendly advice, because I'm so familiar with toxins."
But that advice, Howarth said, can come at a price. Although he and Dyer sometimes offer the purification rundown free to cash-strapped clients, Howarth said the bill for others can reach $3,500.
'There are licenses required'
The law barring non-doctors from practicing medicine is a broad one
It defines the practice of medicine as "the diagnosis, treatment, operation or prescription for any human disease, pain injury, deformity or other physical or mental condition."
People who engage in those activities as part of a religious activity, or those who are administering family remedies or acting in an emergency are exempted from the law. But otherwise, non-doctors who diagnose or treat disease can be charged with a felony.
The state Supreme Court has ruled that even treatments that involve non-prescription drugs, vitamins or foods constitute unlicensed practice if they're offered by a person who lacks a doctor's license or state approval to work as a homeopathic physician or nutritionist.
"The overarching concern is there are licenses required in this state for being involved in nutrition and dietitian practices as well as medicine," said Grossman, the assistant attorney general.
"Some of what you describe may well be something that falls under those statutes."
Tom Cruise and Kirstie Alley
Howarth and Dyer said they came to New Port Richey from Hawaii, seeking a place where they could open a business cheaply while living close to the church's Clearwater headquarters
The couple took a dilapidated home and turned it into a freshly painted store, Howarth said. The purification rundown, rather than prompting scrutiny, should be recognized as an important service that the store is offering to the public.
"We are here trying to help people and do some good for the community," Howarth said.
Both Howarth and Dyer lashed out against the Times, calling the newspaper's coverage of Scientology "smut."
Because of that coverage, Howarth said, the public -- and the store's prospective clients -- have formed false and negative opinions of Scientology.
It's for that reason, the couple said, that they didn't tell visitors at the store's recent open house about their ties to the church.
"It's not a question of withholding information," Howarth said. "It just wasn't the topic of discussion."
Those who attended heard a testimonial about purification from famous church member and actor Kirstie Alley.
And Dyer recommended a book about nutrition that included contributions from Scientologists John Travolta and Tom Cruise.
When one of the prospective clients noted that all three were church members, Howarth smiled.
"Well," he said, "There must be something to it, then."