Dr. Weil, Heal Thyself

The alternative-medicine icon's recent string of commercial ventures have caused more than a few headaches

Dr. Andrew Weil, the health-guru-turned-celebrity, is trying to prove you can simultaneously be an icon for social change and a fast-growth entrepreneur. But so far, he's off to a sputtering start. And the reason may be that maintaining the purity that goes with being an icon is incompatible with the compromises one must make to successfully lead a fast-growth company. After all, could Ralph Nader have maintained his reputation as a consumer activist if he had founded an auto-parts company?

I should point out that I've been a longtime fan of Weil. I've taken much of his advice to heart -- for example, to avoid as much as possible non-organic strawberries, based on his assessment that they're heavily treated with pesticides, and to try to eat more soy, based on its potential health benefits.

I think what I've admired more than the earthiness and sageness of his advice, though, is the fact that he promotes such views in spite of his conventional health-care background (Harvard Medical School). He has pushed for greater acceptance of so-called integrative medicine, which seeks an expanded role for "complementary therapies" like nutritional supplements and acupuncture, instead of surgery, pharmaceuticals, and other such conventional approaches.


  In staking his strong traditional credentials on a path so at odds with much of the rest of his profession, he took a significant risk in support of his beliefs. And he did it seemingly without going commercial, beyond promoting his 10 books and his Web site (www.drweil.com).

But then, beginning in 2003, he decided to endorse commercial products, and in quick succession he put his name on the door (Weil Lifestyles), created his own line of nutritional supplements, signed a $14 million deal to sell the supplements through drugstore.com, endorsed a line of skin creams and pet foods, and raised millions from private investors.

In so doing, he created an opening for attack by the medical-scientific Establishment he had so strongly condemned. And in January, the Establishment pounced.


  The highly respected Nutrition Action Healthletter, a publication put out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in January published a scathing critique of Weil. The writer noted that Weil's Web site provides "personalized" recommendations for nutritional supplements, yet, "No matter how we tried, we couldn't get the Advisor to stop recommending that we buy supplements galore" -- supplements from Weil's line, of course.

Much of the article took aim at Weil's long-time recommendations of supplements like vitamin E, Coenzyme Q10, and evening primrose oil, pointing to recent studies questioning their efficacy. Accompanying the assessments, the writer totaled up the cost of Weil's products. Its conclusion: "Beware of doctors who sell what they recommend." To emphasize its point, the newsletter also made a big deal of Weil's $14 million deal with drugstore.com.

Weil now finds himself in the awkward position of not only having to defend himself against charges of inappropriately exploiting his medical-celebrity status, but having to do it in the presence of a high-powered New York public-relations firm and assorted investors/partners. During a conference call by Weil and his advisers, he gave a spirited and compelling defense of his decision to go commercial.


  His primary motivation, he says, was to create a stable funding source for his $3 million program to train doctors in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona, presumably with a similar anti-Establishment attitude as his. He says he was tired of seeking out donations, and coming up empty in tapping state money. "If there were another way to raise funds for our educational programs, I would do it."

So far, it has been slow going. The business ventures have pumped only $60,000 into a foundation he has set up to fund the university programs, though last year's $3.5 million revenues from Weil Lifestyles should generate about $100,000 more. It's a long way from the $3 million his university program requires each year.

Weil encountered another side effect of entrepreneurship when drugstore.com last year sued his company, contending in the suit, "Weil essentially has failed to perform any of his marketing obligations under the agreement," after being paid $3.9 million. It cited a 2004 interview Weil did with Larry King Live, saying, "Although this was a reasonable opportunity for Weil to use efforts to promote [drugstore.com], he failed to do so."


  Weil says the company expected him to promote his product line "every time I was on TV…I won't do that." To settle the suit, Weil says he walked away from the remaining $10 million potentially owed him of the original $14 million contract. Drugstore.com says it renegotiated the agreement with Weil so that the outlet only does order fulfillment, meaning "there are no substantive contractual obligations between drugstore.com and Dr. Andrew Weil."

Weil says the Nutrition Action Newsletter report "made me quite angry." He maintains the newsletter "made no effort to reach me," (though the report says "repeated requests to interview Andrew Weil…went unanswered"). More significantly, he notes that its parent, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "has a history of an anti-supplement bias." He adds, "I don't know why they singled me out."

As I said, Weil sounds as feisty as ever. The problem he faces is that by taking the fast-growth-company path, he has left himself open to pot-shots from his many opponents within the scientific and medical Establishment.


  Instead of being a pure and independent voice for a new view of medicine and health care, he risks becoming just another celebrity entrepreneur trying to be heard in the din of the marketplace. Unfortunately, the marketplace isn't very good at making sense of the nuances of what Weil is doing in terms of how much of his profits are going to the foundation, after which expenses, for how long, etc., etc.

The jobs of medical icon and entrepreneur just may not mix well. Credibility is a delicate asset. All the things Weil finds distressing about the medical Establishment's emphasis on profits at the risk of long-term health become much more difficult for him to criticize now that the Establishment can fire back by asking how much he's making from his supplements and pet-food endorsement.

Weil Lifestyles may yet make it big financially, as Weil's partners predict. But I would expect that Weil will need to do some image adjustment to get rid of the headache his new entrepreneurial life is creating for him.

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