A herbal Viagra scam and the hard truth about the supplement industry

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Mast: The scientific name I won’t try to pronounce. But it has the initials OT. It’s kind of a fern, a viper’s tongue fern. And he didn’t want the competition to find out that was his secret ingredient. So he gave it another name, Golden Spear Grass Extract, which as far as I know was a bit absurd. And it’s actually another reminder that the herbal supplement industry isn’t that well regulated because he could call it whatever he wanted, and had an incentive to do so because he couldn’t. not patent it. You are not allowed to patent any herbal ingredient.

Laura: So it has this ingredient. He sells it, calls it Stiff Nights, and it sells pretty well. What’s wrong ?

Mast: First of all, a lot of things are going well, because a lot of guys who had been desperately rolling through a bunch of similar sounding products without having much of an impact on their sex lives were suddenly like, “Oh my gosh, it is the best product ever.

Alexander: You describe he was approached by adoring fans at a conference, right?

Mast: He was going to trade shows, and his booth was like the stand. He said people would come and shake his hand, and cry because they would be so happy that his product gave them the kind of erections they wanted. And Erb, who when he was younger suffered from an overwhelming lack of confidence, he really got into the idea that he was helping other men gain self-confidence. So he would cry with them. You would have these two men crying together because of an erection.

So Erb is booming buying all kinds of distressed property to become a real estate agent, buying the private plane, and then one day the FDA comes knocking on the door.

Alexander: After the break, we’ll find out what happened when the FDA tried to shut down Stiff Nights.


Laura: Before the break, Matt was telling us about Erb’s success. We stopped just at the very suspenseful moment: the FDA raid.

Alexander: What did the FDA want? They were just like, “Hey, congratulations, congratulations on all of your success with Stiff Nights”?

Mast: It turned out that Stiff Nights, as far as the FDA could determine, contained a drug analogue. A drug analogue is something that is essentially the same as a patented synthetic drug, but it has been altered at a molecular level that doesn’t really change the impact but allows you to bypass patent infringements. So he didn’t have sildenafil, which is the active drug in Viagra, but he did have a sildenafil analogue in his product. And that’s why it worked as well as Viagra – because, for all intents and purposes, it was Viagra.

Alexander: He had just sold something that was drugs in every sense of the word.

Laura: So the FDA came knocking on the door. Was it a surprise?

Mast: He knew the FDA had asked him a lot of tough questions, but he had a reason to believe his product was in fact pure. And the reason is that there were a lot of counterfeiters who produced fake stiff nights.

Laura: Even though it was Erb’s dream, he wasn’t the only person selling male enhancement supplements, and he wasn’t even the only person selling Stiff Nights.

Alexander: That’s right. There were smugglers who sold counterfeit versions of Erb’s completely unregulated sexual enhancement supplement.

Mast: And they were virtually identical. So Erb said he felt like the FDA was testing counterfeit Stiff Nights very extensively, found this drug there, and then wanted to blame him. And Erb had no problem convincing himself that this was the case, as he felt the FDA was persecuting him for offering this all-natural alternative. He thought it was only natural for the big drug companies to use the FDA as a tool to come and stomp on him.

Laura: I mean, he thought he was right, but that didn’t come out of nowhere either. It has always been a possibility.

Mast: My impression is that Erb was rightfully wrong. He should have seen the warning signs, but he was so deeply married to his dream that he just didn’t. He closed his eyes.

Laura: If you are raided by the FDA, what happens next?

Mast: Erb has resigned. Even though he felt the FDA was wrong, he pulled out of the business.

Laura: So he didn’t go to jail, but there were people he worked with who faced more serious consequences?

Mast: Yes, the FDA and federal agents have done a very thorough investigation. I’m not aware of all the ins and outs of this investigation, but I think it’s important to note that Erb has not been charged with any felony. They took his product and told them not to sell it anymore, but they didn’t seem to have the proof they would need to conclude that he was an active conspirator in this area. But her supplier, a guy named Kelly Dean, has been charged with various counts relating to the Stiff Nights empire and Operation Stiff Nights. And he went to jail. He spent between two and four years there and was released not too long ago.

Alexander: He was the one who helped find this miracle ingredient, right?

Mast: He had contact with the supplier from China, so it was an integral part of the chain. He apparently knew exactly what he was doing in a way that Erb didn’t know.

Alexander: Law. Erb was importing God knows what from China, assuming it was exactly the natural ingredient he claimed to be, and selling it to billions of people. That was all he did.

Mast: You and I could try to control this product a bit more. But, for some reason, Erb didn’t.

Laura: This brings us back to the packages Alex was talking about that are available at the bodega. If the FDA stepped in and cleaned it up, why can you still buy Stiff Nights and all of its various competitors to this day?

Mast: The answer is, you shouldn’t be able to do it, but you can. Basically all those counterfeiters that keep selling counterfeit Stiff Nights after Erb leaves the scene, they’re still here, and they’re in such numbers, under so many shell companies and different individuals and products and different names and brands that the FDA is just completely overwhelmed with. The FDA only checks 0.16% of packages suspected of containing illegal drugs entering the United States at international mail distribution centers. They don’t have the people. They don’t have time for that. It’s just a crazy punching game that the government has practically lost.

Alexander: When we were talking about this story, Laura, what was the surprising thing you learned?

Laura: I mean, I’ve seen supplements of all kinds over the years, and my main suspicion about them has been, well you’re going to buy this elderberry infusion and it costs $ 25, and nothing happens. It does not cure your common cold. It does not help you fall asleep at night. It’s just a scam. What surprised me about this was, oh, you could buy this improvement thing and it really works.

Alexander: Because it was just drugs!

Laura: It’s a little more frightening.

Mast: I would say it was a learning time for me too, Laura. It’s really shocking that what protects a lot of manufacturers is that their product, at the very least, doesn’t hurt. And on various fronts, it probably does a lot of good. But there are harmful products, and without having a window on which ones are good and which are bad, it’s a bit like playing Russian roulette.

Alexander: So after establishing that a lot of these things are unregulated, unsafe, untested, you might get a drug analogue, you don’t know what’s in it, and meanwhile the thing you want, we have various legal and regulated drugs that do that, why would you go to the gas station instead of getting a prescription for Cialis?

Mast: I would put the blame on the system itself. Who among us is happy with our health care system? We look at the prices, and it is scandalous. We are looking at opportunities for political corruption of entities like the FDA and certainly Congress by Big Pharma and all the medical vendors, and the system is rife with abuse and potential abuse.

Alexander: If you are uninsured, what is the direct cost of purchasing these unregulated supplements compared to going to your doctor and getting a prescription for something?

Mast: Even though the supplement makers are making cash, it’s an order of magnitude cheaper I think. You buy a pack of fake Stiff Nights for $ 80 or $ 90, and you go to your doctor, and finally that same volume of Viagra is going to be $ 300, $ 400.

Laura: There is a nice coda in your post where Erb is given the opportunity to go right in and start selling Viagra, to use his brilliant digital marketing skills to make money in this area. And he refuses on principle.

Mast: Yes, he says he’s not a charlatan. He won’t sell drugs, no knowingly. He was very, very adamant, and almost insulted, that someone suggested that he sell Viagra.

Alexander: Is Erb still on the hunt for all-natural male enhancements?

Mast: Oh, he is, he is. Erb realized that he missed Stiff Nights. He misses this feeling that he was helping a lot of men and making a lot of money. So he’s over there, trying different combinations of plants, trying to find one that works.

He says he found one once a day. He only had a small amount of it, and it gave him an erection for three days, and now he can’t get it back. This memory guides his quest and his hope that he will truly be able to deliver the all-natural product that will knock Viagra off its high ground.

Alexander: Well, I’m almost in favor of it.

Laura: The dream of Stiff Nights’ return may remain elusive for now. But I think this story has taught us a lot about the medical system in this country and a frightening lack of regulation.

Alexander: Matt, thank you very much for coming back to the show. It’s always a pleasure.

Mast: I had so much fun. You always ask the best questions.

Laura: Matt Hongoltz-Hetling is the author of A libertarian walks into a bear. You can listen to our previous episode with him talk about his book. This is episode 19.

Alexander: And you can read his article, “The Rise and Fall of an Herbal Viagra Scammer”, in The New Republic.

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