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There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute: Amazon and Fake Supplements

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” — Ironically, NOT a P.T. Barnum quote like everyone has been told. It was said by his competitor David Hannum, according to

In my research on Big Bullshit, it was inevitable that I would cross paths with Amazon, the world’s 3rd largest corporation, and the leading seller of supplements, health books, and bizarre exercise equipment.

While there’s certainly plenty that one can critique about Amazon and its business practices (and in fact, there is a whole Wikipedia article dedicated to this), I was more interested in their relationship with medical BS. Going along with the idea that medical BS is everyone’s problem and everyone’s responsibility, I was curious to see Amazon’s standards for what it will sell and to see if it might, at times, put any other goal above profits.

The first thing I ran across was this gem of an article: Amazon Warns Customers: Those Supplements Might Be Fake. I naively thought this was going to be about Amazon cracking down on supplements that made false claims or had dishonest labeling. Rather, it was about third-party sellers offering counterfeit supplements, a situation that often means selling a fake-fake (as opposed to a legitimate fake).

This situation calls to mind the saga of the Cardiff Giant, one of the world’s great hoaxes. Briefly, George Hull, an atheist, was inspired by arguments about the truth of claims in the Bible about a race of giants. From 1859-1868, at the expense of about $50,000 of today’s dollars, Hull created a 10-foot tall “petrified man.” His investment paid off, and despite several scientists declaring it a fraud (did you really need training in paleontology to sniff out this BS), thousands of people paid the 2020 equivalent of $10 to see it. Hull sold his interest in the giant for what amounts to $460,000 today, to a syndicate headed by David Hannum.

Things get even more interesting when P.T. Barnum, of circus fame, tried to buy the giant from the syndicate. When the syndicate refused, Barnum created his own and even went on to say that the original giant was the fake, and his was real. It was at this time that Hannum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” a quote that ironically ended up attributed to Barnum.

Back to Amazon… the issue of fake products, counterfeit products, and counterfeit fakes is not insignificant. In fact, the monitoring of third-party sellers for safety and legitimacy is a major concern and source of potential liability not for just Amazon, but many online marketplaces like Etsy and Ebay. This is a particularly serious issue when talking about supplements, a poorly regulated industry, where even legitimately branded supplements (e.g. GNC, Walmart, Target, Walgreens) have been found to have deceptive or inaccurate labeling (mostly an absence of “active” ingredients) and other “natural” supplements have been found to contain multiple contaminants ranging from heavy metals to Viagra. This is not even taking into account the many unsubstantiated health-promoting claims numerous supplements make, yet another layer of falsity.

The bottom line: to protect health and bodies of real people, we need regulations and quality control for supplements and other medical products. In the meantime, be aware of the rule of caveat emptor: let the buyer beware.


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