In The Politics of Autism, I discuss autism quackery. At Mother Jones, Kiera Butler writes about multi-level marketing [MLM- think Tupperware] of dubious products to the autism community.
Over the past five years or so, with a big assist from DoTerra and its main competitor, an MLM company called Young Living, essential oils have taken off in the autism community. Some parents I talked to told me they spend more than $200 a month on DoTerra products. On Facebook, there are dozens of essential oil groups for parents of kids on the spectrum—the group Autism, ADHD, and Essential Oils, for example, has more than 19,000 members.
In 2014, the Food and Drug Administration put DoTerra on notice that its salespeople were violating federal law by claiming the company’s essential oils could cure or treat a wide variety of health problems—“viral infections (including ebola), bacterial infections, cancer, brain injury, autism, endometriosis, Grave’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, tumor reduction, ADD/ADHD, and other conditions that are not amenable to self-diagnosis and treatment by individuals who are not medical practitioners.”
After receiving the FDA’s letter, DoTerra warned its army of more than 3 million wellness advocates to refrain from making such claims, but not all of them listened—as of last week, at least one representative was touting the company’s essential oils on Facebook for flu prevention. When asked about salespeople still making health claims, DoTerra’s Larsen responded in an email that the company is “committed to absolute compliance with the FDA and similar regulatory bodies around the world.”
In any case, DoTerra salespeople have found a clever workaround. Instead of explicitly touting the oils’ ability to treat autism, salespeople need only share their personal experiences, telling potential customers about, say, the time vetiver helped their child sit through math class, or how a special blend prompted little Billy to hug Grandma for the first time. This sort of anecdotal marketing worries Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, an autism specialist and professor of psychiatry at Columbia University’s medical school. “People sharing their own stories—that does not really tell us much about whether a treatment works,” he says. In fact, there’s no “biological plausibility” for how an essential oil would improve autism symptoms.