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During the Obama administration, the Federal Trade Commission made its biggest-ever effort to curb this industry when last summer it slapped nutritional supplement–seller Herbalife with a $200 million fine and, as part of a settlement with Herbalife, demanded it restructure its business so that it would “start operating legitimately,” as FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez put it. The FTC alleged Herbalife had engaged in “unfair and deceptive practices,” and put it under a federal monitor for seven years, demanding onerous changes to its compensation plan and requiring extensive documentation of customer sales. Ramirez then set down an ambitious posture for the FTC: In the future, she said at an MLM industry conference in October, these companies should adopt the new Herbalife rules when structuring their businesses, as the FTC would be watching.
Nutritional supplements are not classified as either “foods” or “drugs”. They’re not foods because you don’t eat them for sustenance (you eat them to “supplement” your existing diet). And they’re not drugs because they’re not intended to treat any condition. The FDA largely ignores the industry, which means MLMs don’t face the same harsh regulations as food or drug providers in other industries.
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