Monday, April 29, 2019

Snake Oil Sales: The Hidden Cost of UCLA’s Urban Zen Aromatherapy Program

[Author's Note: This article was originally written for my investigative journalism class in late April of 2019. Names have not been changed.]

“As part of my training I was given a Young Living essential oil starter kit to practice with,” states UCLA graduate Sarah Jividen, R.N. “I got it as part of the program when I took it three years ago. Included in tuition.” Having any supplies included in a college tuition sounds like a bargain; UCLA students are used to paying hundreds per quarter for course materials, from books to dissection kits to watercolor palettes. But the $4000 Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program, which teaches students yoga, aromatherapy, reiki, and other holistic practices, includes the $165 essential oil kit at seemingly no addition cost.

What the program fails to tell students is that the $165 oil kit is a recruitment tool - one for Young Living, a multi-level marketing giant.

“We were told to never sell a single oil, and to keep pushing the starter kit so we could make all our dreams come true,” said Olivia Casey, a Young Living member from 2016 to 2018. She was recruited to sell Young Living products after taking an essential oil class with a friend who worked in medical claims and was studying to be a nurse. Casey shared some of her Young Living materials, such as a book called Gameplan, which includes such chapters as “Marketing 101: How to Share Oils [and] Fill Classes without Knowing People” and “The Anatomy of a Successful Class and Follow Up 101.”

The Young Living starter kit includes 10 bottles of oils, as well as 10 business cards, a product guide and product price list, and Young Living member resources - everything needed to begin selling Young Living essential oils.

Essential oil use has been a booming industry in the United States as well as worldwide, with a market value of 17 billion dollars globally, according to Statistica. Essential oil use offers a “natural” alternative to traditional pharmaceuticals, and hospitals across America are increasingly including their use as part of their patient treatment. But despite some promising suggestions that essential oils may have health benefits, there’s a darker side to the industry: essential oils are typically sourced from multi-level marketing companies rather than traditional businesses. Multi-level marketing companies engage in predatory and often illegal business practices, ones which embellish the medical benefits of their products while downplaying the risks.

Young Living is the largest commercial retailer of essential oils, exceeding $1.5 billion in sales last year. Essential oils can be purchased through its “members," independent sales contractors. Like most multi-level marketing companies, the sales force for Young Living isn't made of employees, and their sales aren't towards consumers. The company sells their products to members, who then resell the products for a commission.

Signing up as a member costs a minimum of $165, but includes the starter kit. According to the most recent income disclosure statement, 94% of total members earn an average of only $1 per month in sales commissions, which does not include the hundreds of dollars spent on Young Living products to maintain an active membership.

Young Living's exploitative practices have brought a class-action suit against it by former members who allege that the company's false claims were financially ruinous (O’Shaughnessy vs. Young Living Essential Oils). Disclosures from the suit revealed that the average loss per member was approximately $1,175. According to the lawsuit, “ the financial success of any Young Living Member is overwhelmingly dependent on the recruitment of new people into the Young Living sales force, making it “unequivocally a pyramid scheme.”

Ellen Wilson, the executive director of therapy services, speaking on behalf of UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, disputed the notion that UCLA is partnered with Young Living. A 2011 press release by Young Living titled “Young Living Essential Oils Used in UCLA Training” states that “Young Living essential oils play a key role in a groundbreaking new partnership between Donna Karan’s Urban Zen Foundation and the UCLA Health System.” Wilson clearly stated that UCLA does not endorse one brand over another. However, Wendy Tucker, the Inpatient Integrative Medicine Coordinator of UCLA’s Ronald Reagan Medical Center, stated that Ronald Reagan uses only Young Living oils. Wilson also stated that “our institution is not part of Young Living’s ‘multi-level construct’” and that “oils are purchased via our normal procurement channels.” She did not elaborate on what those procurement channels are.

Wilson states that UCLA selects essential oils based on quality, and that the medical programs only use “pure, medical-grade essential oils because they are the most effective and safest.” However, there is no standard, certified grading system for essential oils. “Medical-grade” and “therapeutic-grade” are terms Young Living applied to their oils but which lack any true meaning. In fact, “therapeutic-grade” is a trademark of Young Living, and in 2013 they sued a competitor for using it to refer to their oils. And, as Nyssa Hanger of the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy points out, “the purity of the oil does not change the fact that they are extremely concentrated plant material and can be easily overdosed."

Essential oils are the cause of over 16,000 toxic exposures each year, according to the most recent Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Katherine Osby, a UCLA undergraduate who is a member of Chemical Entanglements Student Group, says the reasons for these toxic exposures include “misleading marketing and advertising of essential oils, and the use of synthetic fragrances and adulteration... in [their] production.” In other words, people overdose because the marketing conceals that one can overdose on oils, and people suffer reactions to fragrances and synthetic additives that the manufacturers don't disclose.

Young Living is a repeat offender of both misleading marketing as well as adulterating their oils; in 2014, they were issued an FDA warning for making false medical statements. Their website at the time boasted unfounded claims that their pure essential oils could treat cancer, HIV, herpes, and the Ebola virus.

The “pure” essential oils are often adulterated synthetics, according to independent testing done by Dr. Robert S. Pappas, a Ph.D. chemist consultant who specializes in the analysis of essential oils. Dr. Pappas had previously worked for Young Living as an analytic consultant, during which time he discovered that many of the oils had been adulterated. He left the company after being asked to retract his conclusions and refusing, and has since established a watchdog organization called Essential Oil University which hosts the Essential Oil Chemical Reference database.

Above: lavender.

Wilson points out that UCLA only approves the use of five essential oils, only one of which was named in the FDA warning.*  She declined to comment on why UCLA students are given a $165 Young Living starter kit when only five essential oils are used in the UCLA medical schools. Purchased wholesale, the five oils alone would be $107.50. One of the five oils approved for clinical use at UCLA, ginger, is not included in the starter kit at all. And one of the five oils, “Panaway,” is a proprietary essential oil blend that is a registered trademark of Young Living and sold exclusively by Young Living.

Wilson states that “Employees are permitted to purchase and distribute Young Living products so long as they are doing so on their own time… and they are not endorsing the product in their capacity as an employee.” Yet on social media, many posts made by both students and official program channels tag Young Living and UCLA together, some showing R.N. badges next to Young Living oils, or UCLA ID cards alongside Young Living merchandise.

These posts are not only from students of the integrative therapy program, but also from its graduates, instructors, and directors.

For example, a picture posted to Twitter in 2015 by the official Urban Zen account shows dozens of students in yoga poses, their Young Living Starter Kits at their feet; Young Living is tagged in the post.

Essential oil courses offered by the Students for Integrative Medicine, a student organization of UCLA, are hosted by Young Living members. “We [were] supposed to invite people to ‘learn about oils’ classes at our homes. The class was actually just a sales pitch,” recalls Casey.

The director of the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program, Gillian Cilibrasi, was asked if her role as a Young Living member presented a conflict of interest, and where the class materials were acquired from, but declined to provide any comments.

* A note on my correspondence with Wilson. Having nagged the deans and other various important people at both the School of Public Health and the School of Medicine, Wilson replied on behalf of all of them, stating: "You are correct that essential oils are used throughout the UCLA Health system. We have found them to be an effective addition to traditional medications in treating a variety of symptoms, as have many other hospitals. They are an important alternative to pharmaceuticals. We use only pure, medical-grade essential oils because they are the most effective and safest for our patients. "

I responded: "Thanks for your reply! May I ask what you mean by "medical-grade" essential oils? To my knowledge, there is no grading system for essential oils in the US, nor any regulatory body to grade the oils. How do you respond to the FDA warnings against both Young Living and doTerra, and the ample evidence that their essential oils are not as "pure" as they advertise?"

Wilson then replied, "With the exception of Peppermint, which is used primarily for odor control, we do not use any of these oils. We make no claim that these oils “cure” disease, but they can help patients to feel more comfortable while in the hospital or undergoing treatment. Use of essential oils is entirely optional for patients, and this is explained to them."

I was able to procure a copy of the UCLA essential oil guide, which can be seen in one of the nurse's kits above, and it clearly indicates that peppermint is absolutely used for treating patients symptoms.

Unfortunately I was constrained by the word count limit of this assignment and had to make some executive decisions on which elements I wanted to focus in on. 

For the most recent class action lawsuit taken against Young Living (as of the time of this publication), click here.  For information on the founder of Young Living, Donald Gary Young, click here.

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