Quackery and “wellness”: The case of David and Collet Stephan and their son Ezekiel

There is now a whole industry devoted to something called “wellness.” It’s a big industry, too, estimated to be worth around $3.4 trillion—that’s trillion!—worldwide, which is much larger than the value of the global pharmaceutical industry. But what, exactly, is “wellness”? Well, it is a rather amorphous concept:

Nutrition and weight loss, preventative and personalized health, complementary and alternative medicine, and beauty and anti-aging treatments were the biggest growing sectors, the report compiled by the non-profit research center SRI International showed.

“All across the world we have seen, from Asia to Europe to Africa to North America, more and more people are consciously thinking about healthy food, exercising, looking to nature, getting massages and doing yoga,” said Ophelia Yeung, a senior consultant for SRI International who led the study.

Spa treatments and products, alternative and complementary treatments and weight-loss programs once considered beyond the means of many people, she added, are becoming more mainstream with a growing middle class.

As you can see, “wellness” encompasses everything from diet, exercise, lifestyle, and “getting back to nature” to “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or, as it’s more commonly called, “integrative medicine.” Of course, CAM, or “integrative medicine,” exists primarily for the purpose of “integrating” quackery and pseudoscience into medicine, and the “wellness” industry subscribes to the same philosophy. As I like to put it, “wellness” is nothing more than diet, exercise, lifestyle interventions, and often spa treatments plus a heaping helping of pure quackery, all frequently sold at a highly—shall we say?—profitable markup. Indeed, whenever I hear the word “wellness,” my skeptical antennae start a’twitchin’ mightily.

I don’t have to think very hard to come across examples of “wellness” and its intrinsic flirtation with pseudoscience. After all, what is Gwyneth Paltrow‘s “Goop” but a wellness company that exists to offer up high priced jade eggs for women to stick up their vaginas, magic healing energy stickers, and high priced conferences where the faithful can lap up mysticism about life after death and quackery delivered by an anti-psychiatry antivaxer?

There was another example of a story in the media this week that reminded me of the susceptibility of the “wellness” industry to quackery. It comes from Canada, where, according to stories that my readers have been pelting me with since this weekend, David Stephan has been featured at Health and Wellness Expos of Canada, which were scheduled to take place all over Canada. The result was an outpouring of well-justified criticism that I more or less missed out on because it all happened over the weekend and I (usually) do not blog on the weekend. Fortunately, however, that doesn’t stop me from making up for it now. For instance, André Picard made his displeasure known:

David Stephan was found guilty of failing to provide the necessities of life for his 19-month-old son, Ezekiel.

The toddler died of meningitis in March, 2012 because, as he fell increasingly ill, his parents opted to “treat” him with naturopathic potions and supplements instead of seeking prompt medical help.

Now, that same Mr. Stephan is doing a multicity tour as the featured speaker of Health and Wellness Expos of Canada, lecturing on “Achieving Brain & Thyroid Health.”

There are no words to express how sick this is.

When a man whose son died of swelling of the brain because of his negligence has the effrontery to lecture others on brain health, we know that hubris and self-delusion know no bounds.

You might remember David Stephan, as he has been featured on this blog on multiple occasions. Basically, back in 2012 David and Collet Stephan allowed their child to die of bacterial meningitis through medical neglect and relying on the advice of a local naturopath. Their case became a cause célèbre two years ago when they came to trial for failing to provide the necessaries of life (that is, in this case, medical neglect). Naturally, they cried persecution and blamed their being prosecuted on a plot to impose forced vaccination, demonstrating how belief in quackery and antivaccine views often go hand-in-hand. In any event, the parents were found guilty, as they should have been given what I knew about the facts of the case. Unfortunately, the case is still undergoing appeal and scheduled to be heard by the the Supreme Court of Canada in May.

The story hit the national Canadian news and rapidly spread to international news when a major sponsor of the Expo withdrew its sponsorship over Stephan’s presence in the lineup of speakers:

A national grocery chain said Sunday that it’s no longer a sponsor of a series of “wellness” expositions where a man convicted in the death of his toddler was listed as a featured speaker.

Sobeys had been sponsoring the Health and Wellness Expos of Canada, which on Sunday morning listed David Stephan as a speaker at events this month and next in Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton.

In an e-mailed statement, a spokeswoman said the company couldn’t support the organizers’ decision to host Stephan as a speaker.

It was really amazing how fast things moved. Initially after Sobeys withdrew its sponsorship, the organizers of Health and Wellness Expos of Canada doubled down on their defense of including Stephan:

But Rick Thiessen, the owner of Health and Wellness Expos of Canada, was unapologetic.

He told CBC News in Saskatoon that the events would go ahead and the controversy was actually good for ticket sales.

Mr. Thiessen said he judges vendors by their products, not their personal lives.

“Having seen and looked at all the documentation and had conversations about what happened, it’s between them and their god, it’s not between me and them,” Mr. Thiessen told CBC. “The issue that Dave had in terms of being arrested has nothing to do with his health-care product that he’s selling.”

Actually, as one of our commenters pointed out in the comments of various posts, that’s not true at all. David Stephan belongs to a family that runs a nutritional supplements company, Truehope Nutritional Support, . He’s also a Mormon, but he belongs to the strain of Mormonism that believes in a more “natural” approach to healing based on religious texts. (It’s not a coincidence that, right here in the gold old USA, the center of the supplement industry is in Utah.) Basically, Stephan’s entire business and worldview are inextricably linked to what happened to his son’s death, with his belief in “natural healing” having lead to Ezekiel’s unnecessary death. As far as David Stephan’s business goes, Health Canada launched an unsuccessful court case in 2004 to stop the distribution of the company’s product Empowerplus, a product that the company claimed to be able to manage mental illnesses. The case ended in 2006 when the company was found not guilty of distributing the supplement without a drug identification number.

A quick look at the Truehope website reveals a number of red flags of quackery, including claims that its supplements can treat ADHD, anxiety, autism, bipolar disorder, depression, fatigue, and stress. There are some truly quacky claims on the website, too. For instance, here’s what Truehope claims about autism:

If you or your child suffer from autism and you want to address the cause effectively rather than “cover up” the symptoms with medication, Truehope EMPowerplus Advanced can help.

Made up of 36 clinically proven vitamins, minerals, amino acids and anti-oxidants, Truehope’s EMPowerplus Advanced could help with your autism.

Extensive independent research shows that when the body and brain are provided with the essential nutrients found in EMPowerplus Advanced, they are able to function properly—often negating the signs and symptoms of autism. Don’t be fooled by imitations—only Truehope EMPowerplus Advanced contains these nutrients in a microground form so the body can easily absorb them into the bloodstream.

Since the symptoms of autism are caused by chemical issues in the brain, why treat your autism with more chemicals? Try EMPowerplus Advanced today to see for yourself how nature can work in harmony with your body to help you feel like your best self.

You get the idea. Let’s just say that these claims are a fetid load of dingo’s kidneys (and rotting ones at that). What evidence do they have? The best they can come up with is a paper describing the use of micronutrients in a “naturalistic case-control study.” It’s basically an utterly worthless study, as it’s not randomized, and it’s not blinded, much less double-blinded. In other words, it’s typical of the sorts of studies that supplement companies use to try to support their claims that their products can treat a disease. In the US, Truehope would have to sport a quack Miranda warning. Oh, wait. If you scroll to the bottom of the page you’ll see that there is indeed such a warning, “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.”

As for the supplements themselves, they are remarkably uninteresting. If you look at the list of ingredients for EMEmpowerPlus Advanced, for example, contains nothing but a bunch of vitamins and minerals. As I said before, it might as well be Flintstones vitamins! OK, not quite. It also contains choline bitartrate, DL-phenylalanine, citrus bioflavonoids, inositol, L-glutamine, L-methionine, grape seed extract, ginkgo biloba leaf, and other things. I note that, among the other quackery used to treat Ezekiel before he died, Stephan also gave him EMEmpowerplus:

In addition to those treatments, Ezekiel regularly took several supplements, including one called EMPowerplus. It’s the same pill David’s father developed after Debora’s death. The same pill that David has been selling as vice-president of his father’s company. The same pill that has made the Stephan family heroes to their customers and adversaries of the government.

The full story of the family business can be found here. In brief, David’s father Anthony started looking for vitamin combinations that could cure mental illness in the wake of his wife Debora’s suicide by running a hose from the exhaust pipe of her car to the window in 1994. She was only 40, and had been suffering from from bipolar disorder. Two of David’s siblings, a brother and a sister, also suffered from bipolar affective disorder. Anthony claimed to have cured his son and daughter of their bipolar disorder using his megavitamin supplement. Of note, he basically force-fed his daughter the concoction after pumping her full of Ativan. The story of Truehope is indeed bizarre, beginning with a typical quack’s tale of finding some secret formula to cure a disease that had personally affected him through his family and progressing to corporate intrigue, prosecutions by the government, and finally the death of Ezekiel and David Stephan’s subsequent conviction.

Another vendor was outraged:

A long-time vendor at the Winnipeg Wellness Expo Show says he won’t participate this year, or ever again.

“I’m out. It’s too little, too late,” said Graham Todd, who owns Reliable Mobility and is speaking out because he’s angry.

He’s the latest person to back out of the expo after learning that David Stephan was invited to speak at the Health and Wellness Expos in multiple western Canada cities. Stephan was the man found guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life for his 19-month-old son who died.

“It’s my own ethics, and where I believe the ethics of my company lie, as well,​” Todd said. His company provides people with healthcare equipment such as medical grade compression, raised toilet seats and complex rehab seating structures. ​

“There’s a place for different philosophies of medicine to coexist, and do well, especially on the preventative side of things, not just on the reactionary​,” he said. “But there comes a line where western medicine has to be what we fall back to.”

Todd provides a useful service. Medical grade compression is often used to treat lymphedema, for instance, and complex rehab seating structures, raised toilet seats, and his other offerings are important to patients undergoing rehabilitation. However, I can’t help but wonder: Why didn’t he notice the quackery before? It took a negligent child killer as a speaker before he decided he had a conscience and could no longer be associated with these expos?

Once one of the main corporate sponsors had pulled out and there was a revolt among vendors, it didn’t take long for Rick Thiessen to bow to the inevitable:

In an e-mailed statement, a spokeswoman said the company couldn’t support the organizers’ decision to host Stephan as a speaker.

By Sunday afternoon, his name was removed from the expo’s website and links to the events’ schedules no longer worked.

“He’s no longer involved with our company in any way, shape or form,” said Rick Thiessen, the expo’s owner, when reached by phone on Sunday.

And:

Thiessen said his sponsors and vendors are pulling out, and he doesn’t know if upcoming shows in Calgary and Edmonton will go ahead.

Not surprisingly, David Stephan was none too pleased with this decision. So he took to Facebook Live to rant:

Surprise! Surprise! He starts out saying that he saw activity from “trolls” on his Facebook page and the Saskatoon Wellness Expo. Later, he claims he was never convicted of killing his son, which is a massive straw man. Stephan was not convicted of killing his son; he was convicted of not providing him the medical care he needed. Not surprisingly, he also referred to it as an “astroturf” movement, because, well, dismay at a wellness expo featuring a quack like David Stephan. He goes on about how he’s done 30 recent presentations, with no news coverage, and direly asking about why the Saskatoon Health and Wellness Expo was targeted, calling those who complained “pharma trolls” and blamed a a concerted campaign of disinformation on behalf of journalists supported by Canada’s pharmaceutical industry. It’s the classic “pharma shill” gambit. I found it rather odd, actually. So what if no one took much notice of his previous dozens of presentations? Maybe no one noticed, but skeptics have noticed now.

Yesterday, Stephan was ranting about how his removal from the Expo was evidence of an impending corporate takeover of the natural health industry:

I laughed. The “natural health industry” was taken over by corporate interests a long time ago and is as profit-oriented as any pharmaceutical company.

The credulous embrace of David Stephan by the “wellness” industry to speak at its various expos is not surprisingly, nor is its disavowal of him as soon as there was negative publicity. Organizers of “wellness” expos are fine with someone saying that he can cure bipolar disorder with vitamins. They’re not so fine with someone convicted of, in essence, medical neglect causing the death of a child. Wait, that’s not true. Expo organizers were perfectly fine with Stephan—until he started producing bad publicity and sponsors and vendors pulling out of the show. Only then did they act. The lesson is clear. Deadly quackery is fine in a wellness expo as long as no one notices and starts making a stink that causes publicity sufficiently bad to endanger the conference financially.

Unfortunately, “wellness” and quackery are intertwined and, it appears, inseparable. Yes, one “health and wellness” expo showed a modicum of shame by disavowing a man found guilty by the Canadian court system of not providing proper medical care to his child because he was blinded by his belief in quackery. If he had “merely” been an antivaxer and HIV/AIDS denialist (for example) he might well have been still speaking at these events, as Kelly Brogan did at In Goop Health a couple of weeks ago. Of course, as much as skeptics complained about Kelly Brogan, In Goop Health had an impenetrable shield in the form of Gwyneth Paltrow and her phalanx of media and celebrity sycophants, who overwhelmed skeptics’ attempts to point out the dangerous quackery being presented at In Goop Health with fawning coverage mixed with mild but harmless incredulity. Health and Wellness Expos of Canada had no such such shield, and even Kelly Brogan wasn’t a parent convicted of not providing her child with the necessities of life, leading to his death.

That’s how bad the quackery is in “wellness.” It takes not just a dead child, but the public shaming of the organizers of wellness events over a dead child to break the connection, even temporarily. I definitely am likely to have more to say about “wellness,” maybe even this week.