The feds have busted 12 shady STD treatment companies—and the Better Business Bureau might be collateral damage
The Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission joined forces Tuesday to threaten 12 companies with legal action over the manufacture and sale of products that purport to treat sexually transmitted diseases. The FDA's webpage alone, complete with the video STD Treatments That Don't Work, will prove a devastating assault to most of these businesses. Though it lacks the authority to carry out an IRS-style raid, the FDA has been using its legal department's fearsome prose to bust bad drugs sold as supplements for decades now, and in the past few years we've seen the agency ramp up these efforts as online commerce has driven the problem to epidemic proportions.
So while I expect a steady drumbeat of deadbeat drug bashing, I was instead far more interested to discover a prominent consumer rights nonprofit linked to the mess. The Better Business Bureau lent its considerable credibility to one of the companies the Feds are slamming for endangering the country's public health. What's more, the BBB followed its normal practices and policies in doing so, the organization told me yesterday.
The BBB's involvement became apparent once I decided to take a closer look at the assortment of crappy capsules the Feds are putting on notice. I zeroed in on Medavir, produced by a central-Florida based outfit called The Arenson Group (a.k.a. TAG Health). The internet is littered with TAG's websites selling Medavir under various names. While scrolling along you'll see the usual unsubstantiated claims and endorsements from unnamed physicians that one would expect from shady operators. "Over 90% of outbreaks do not occur when you apply Medavir at first signs of outbreak," one site says. Stop the presses! For your information, that compares to about an 50 to 60 percent chance of future genital herpes outbreaks while on FDA-approved medical treatment (versus a blistering 80 to 90 percent rate without treatment) according to a 2007 meta-analysis of available trial data.
The Arenson Group preys on ashamed kids and unsophisticated adults. Your sexual partner, your doctor, and the public health department need never know!
So how's the the BBB mixed up in this? Take a look at this screen shot from one of the Medavir sites:
As shown in the above screenshot, Medavir prominently displays its BBB Accredited Business logo in the upper left hand corner of its website. Unlike the sprinkling of other certifications and logos on the site that turn out to be illegitimate, BBB's is the real deal. Until earlier today when the organization heard from me and took down their rating, consumers could click on that link to see its A+ rating from the BBB:
The BBB accredited The Arenson Group in January 2009 "based on information provided by the company and our own research," says Holly Salmons, Vice President of BBB of Central Florida.
The bottom line? The BBB is pleased to accredit questionable pill purveyors when they market their mixtures as supplements. Because The Arenson Group's website included the statement "none of these statements have been fully evaluated by the FDA" at the time they applied for accreditation (it still does), the BBB was satisfied to welcome them into its brotherhood of legitimate American businesses. In fact, Ms. Salmons says that while as of Wednesday she has frozen Arenson's status in "update" mode, the BBB will suspend or restore their accreditation only pending their response to the FDA's demands.
Arenson could potentially satisfy federal regulators by removing all medical claims from its websites and packaging and marketing Medavir in some vague manner unconnected to treating herpes sufferers. That would leave little text on their sites indeed. I find it difficult to imagine what a website attempting to sell Medavir without claiming that it treats herpes would look like (what in the world is a "herpes supplement"?), and I'd love to see the original materials the BBB reviewed in 2009.
Once BBB approved Medavir's membership, the company wasn't slated for another review for three years, giving plenty of time for its claims to become progressively more egregious without any oversight. But lack of such frequent review doesn't seem to be the crux of the problem in my own analysis. BBB protests to me that Medavir's January 2009 materials fit classification as a supplement and did not overstep bounds into FDA-regulated territory. After reviewing versions of Medavir.com from January 2009 and the oldest available version from June 2008 over at the Internet Archive, I don't buy their version of events. Take a look back, and make your own call.
The Arenson Group showed off its A+ BBB rating to its vulnerable lot of prospective consumers as an implied seal of approval. This use, even for a health care product, is routine in BBB practice. "Accredited Businesses are permitted to report their rating as long as it is accurate at all times," BBB VP Salmons tells me. Arenson had just two complaints over three years, she says, which is a low complaint volume. Another BBB policy helps explain why Medavir might have so few complaints. BBB only accepts complaints that come with real names and documentation.
People searching out genital herpes cures from the privacy of their own homes are obviously reluctant or unable to do so in the care of actual medical professionals out there in the real world. These consumers must have found some reassurance in BBB's A+ rating, which is why the Medavir site advertised it high above the fold. Medavir had a perfectly marginalized population base from which to draw its A+ record: folks too anxiety-ridden to speak up once they realized they'd been scammed; STD sufferers who didn't think admitting they have herpes to a third party was worth it when that third party took the Hippocratic Oath certainly aren't going to confide their private secrets to the BBB.
The characters behind Medavir made BBB into a Bogus Balms Bureau. To get out of this fix, BBB needs to eject itself from the field of lending credibility to unregulated drug makers entirely. This means excluding health "supplements." It's hard enough for physicians and the FDA to weigh evidence about these agents. BBB ratings are bestowed by an organization with no possible claim to competence in mediating between patients and providers in the unique health care marketplace, as the policies that led to this case prove. Moreover, BBB ratings add nothing of value to any consumer considering what pills to take for an illness. Continuing to offer accreditation to firms like The Arenson Group (aka Medavir Medical Advances) of Windmere, Florida, whether or not they barely skirt FDA enforcement does a disservice to BBB's own heritage.
A series of damaging stories about the president's methods of consoling grieving Gold Star families represent the president’s latest entirely self-inflicted wound.
The question to President Trump on Monday sounded relatively innocuous: “Why haven't we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?” It’s certainly not the kind of question that seemed likely to set off several days of heated controversy.
But the hubbub that has ensued, centering on Trump’s response to the deaths of four soldiers in Niger and, more broadly, the way he deals with grieving military families, is yet another example of how this president inflicts crises on himself. This pattern has happened several times since Trump entered office, with the tussle over the size of his crowd on Inauguration Day and his claim that Barack Obama “wiretapped him.” In each case, Trump’s bluster and his seeming obsession with Obama have led him to commit serious unforced errors.
The staggering scope of the country’s infrastructure initiative—and what it means for the international order
The Pakistani town of Gwadar was until recently filled with the dust-colored cinderblock houses of about 50,000 fishermen. Ringed by cliffs, desert, and the Arabian Sea, it was at the forgotten edge of the earth. Now it’s one centerpiece of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, and the town has transformed as a result. Gwadar is experiencing a storm of construction: a brand-new container port, new hotels, and 1,800 miles of superhighway and high-speed railway to connect it to China’s landlocked western provinces. China and Pakistan aspire to turn Gwadar into a new Dubai, making it a city that will ultimately house 2 million people.
China is quickly growing into the world’s most extensive commercial empire. By way of comparison, after World War II, the Marshall Plan provided the equivalent of $800 billion in reconstruction funds to Europe (if calculated as a percentage of today’s GDP). In the decades after the war the United States was also the world’s largest trading nation, and its largest bilateral lender to others.
A small group of programmers wants to change how we code—before catastrophe strikes.
There were six hours during the night of April 10, 2014, when the entire population of Washington State had no 911 service. People who called for help got a busy signal. One Seattle woman dialed 911 at least 37 times while a stranger was trying to break into her house. When he finally crawled into her living room through a window, she picked up a kitchen knife. The man fled.
The 911 outage, at the time the largest ever reported, was traced to software running on a server in Englewood, Colorado. Operated by a systems provider named Intrado, the server kept a running counter of how many calls it had routed to 911 dispatchers around the country. Intrado programmers had set a threshold for how high the counter could go. They picked a number in the millions.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
In the media world, as in so many other realms, there is a sharp discontinuity in the timeline: before the 2016 election, and after.
Things we thought we understood—narratives, data, software, news events—have had to be reinterpreted in light of Donald Trump’s surprising win as well as the continuing questions about the role that misinformation and disinformation played in his election.
Tech journalists covering Facebook had a duty to cover what was happening before, during, and after the election. Reporters tried to see past their often liberal political orientations and the unprecedented actions of Donald Trump to see how 2016 was playing out on the internet. Every component of the chaotic digital campaign has been reported on, here at The Atlantic, and elsewhere: Facebook’s enormous distribution power for political information, rapacious partisanship reinforced by distinct media information spheres, the increasing scourge of “viral” hoaxes and other kinds of misinformation that could propagate through those networks, and the Russian information ops agency.
The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history.
When did America become untethered from reality?
I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books.
Despite claiming he was better at consoling the families of slain servicemembers than his predecessors, Trump offended the family of La David Johnson and skipped calls and letters to other grieving loved ones.
Thirteen days after Sergeant La David Johnson was killed in Niger, and a day after Donald Trump boasted about his actions to console grieving families in contrast to his predecessors, the president called Johnson’s family Tuesday night.
It didn’t go well.
Representative Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, was with widow Myeshia Johnson when Trump called. “She was crying the whole time, and when she hung up the phone, she looked at me and said, ‘He didn’t even remember his name.’ That’s the hurting part,” Wilson told MSNBC.
“He said, ‘Well, I guess you knew’—something to the effect that ‘he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway.’ You know, just matter-of-factly, that this is what happens, anyone who is signing up for military duty is signing up to die. That’s the way we interpreted it. It was horrible. It was insensitive. It was absolutely crazy, unnecessary. I was livid.”
By lavishing infrastructure dollars on illiberal governments, Beijing is supplanting American soft power.
Along a major tributary of the Mekong River in northeastern Cambodia sits the newly opened Lower Sesan II Dam hydropower plant. The 400-megawatt dam will produce badly needed electricity for the country, but at the cost of potential major ecological damage and the eviction of some 5,000 families from the area. Such consequences are unlikely to sink the fortunes of Hun Sen, Cambodia’s strongman leader who, for 32 years, has relied on the largesse of foreign governments to fund infrastructure projects: For this latest venture, he has China to thank for footing the more than $800-million bill.
In the past, Southeast Asian nations largely turned to the United States and its Western partners to finance such undertakings; in exchange, several of them would maintain the trappings of a democratic society. But under President Donald Trump, America’s waning regional influence is opening the door for China to expand its footprint in the region, even if that means Beijing must deal with illiberal, repressive autocrats seemingly determined to remain in power forever. “I believe I can live at least 30 more years, therefore I can continue as prime minister for 10 more years. It is not difficult for me,” the 65-year-old Hun Sen remarked at the inaugurationfor the dam last month.
A new study shows that families act on insufficient information when it comes to figuring out where to enroll their children.
A person trying to choose their next set of wheels might see that car A made it farther than car B in a road test and assume it gets better gas mileage. But that’s only true if the two tanks are filled with the same substance. Putting high-octane gas in one and water in the other, for example, provides little useful information about which car makes the most of its fuel. A new working paper titled “Do Parents Value School Effectiveness?” suggests that parents similarly opt for schools with the most impressive graduates rather than figuring out which ones actually teach best. The study joins a body of research looking critically at what it means for a school to be successful.
Take the work of Erin Pahlke, for example. The assistant professor of psychology at Whitman College saw research showing that girls who attend school only with other girls tend to do better in math and science. The trick, she said, is that those studies didn’t analyze “differences in the students coming into the schools.” As it turns out, those who end up in same-sex schools tend to be wealthier, start out with more skills, and have parents who are more proactive than students who attend co-ed institutions. In a 2014 meta-analysis, Pahlke and her colleagues reviewed the studies and found when examining schools with the same type of students and same level of resources—rather than “comparing [those at] the public co-ed school to [their counterparts at] the fancy private school that’s single-sex down the road”—there isn’t any difference in how the students perform academically. Single-sex schooling also hasn’t been shown to offer a bump in girls’ attitudes toward math and science or change how they think about themselves. In other words, it often looks like single-sex schools are doing a better job educating kids, but they aren't. It's just that their graduates are people who were going to do well at any school. They’re running on high-octane gas.
High in the Russian Far East lies Wrangel Island, a harsh landscape that supports a surprisingly diverse ecosystem.
High in the Russian Far East, in the Arctic Ocean, lies Wrangel Island, a harsh landscape that supports a surprisingly diverse ecosystem. Wrangel, about the same size as Yellowstone National Park, is home to musk oxen, Arctic foxes, polar bears, and several other species of land mammals, and is visited by more than a hundred species of migratory birds. The island was one of the last refuges for woolly mammoths on Earth. Today, biologists are studying the island’s animals and plants to monitor the effects of the warming climate and the growing presence of humans in the Arctic. Photographer Sergey Gorshkov visited Wrangel and returned with these photos, recently published in the online magazine bioGraphic.