Young Living was one of the first major essential oils companies on the market, helping to launch an industry that is worth billions of dollars today. The company is built on the myth of its founder, whose miraculous medical recovery inspired him to devote his life to alternative medicine. But that story isn’t quite what it appears to be, and the people who believe in it sometimes pay a high price. Business Insider investigative reporter Nicole Einbinder uncovers the truth behind Young Living and its founder, Gary Young.
Produced by Julia Press, with Charlie Herman and Sarah Wyman. Reporting from Nicole Einbinder.
Some members of multilevel-marketing company Young Living are making questionable claims about ‘essential oils’ curing cancer and coronavirus
Inside Gary Young’s criminal history, secret past, and his cultlike leadership of the Young Living ‘essential oils’ empire
How Young Living lures desperate people into its multilevel sales network, where 89% of members make, on average, $4 annually
Note: This transcript may contain errors.
CHARLIE HERMAN: Picture a cave: dark and ominous, that’s lit only by torchlight. There’s a guy wandering through it who kind of looks like Indiana Jones — you know, khaki shirt, weathered jacket, a fedora hat. He’s looking for the “chamber of longevity,” a secret cavern that contains the “elixir of life.” As he moves his torch around the cave, he sees dozens of discarded medical products: empty pill bottles, vials, and sprays.
INDIANA YOUNG: Yeah, that’s what I thought. Inferior products can never go the distance.
CH: Etched into the wall are hieroglyphics of herbs, droplets and vases.
INDIANA YOUNG: After 15 years searching the world, we’ve found the right place.
CH: Above him, are huge letters that spell out the words YOUNG LIVING. The man turns and sees a pedestal with a bottle sitting on top: it’s the elixir of life that he’s been searching for.
INDIANA YOUNG: Wait! Something doesn’t smell right, it may be booby trapped since the ancient truths have been corrupt and forgotten
CH: So he does that thing that Indiana Jones does and grabs the bottle by swapping it out with a bag of sand. But, no surprise, the cave begins to collapse around him and he starts running as this enormous boulder rolls after him, threatening to crush him. Suddenly, he emerges from this “action movie” onto a live stage, where a stage-prop boulder rolls down a track behind him. There’s a huge roar from the crowd. But this isn’t a movie premier, it’s the annual meeting for thousands of people who love and sell essential oils.
GARY YOUNG: Welcome, 2002 grand convention!
CH: From Business Insider, this is Brought to you by… Brands you know, stories you don’t. I’m Charlie Herman.
Today, we partner with Business Insider’s investigative team to take a look at a company behind a product you may recognize: essential oils.
Young Living was one of the first major essential oils companies on the market, helping to launch an industry that today is worth over 17 billion dollars.
The company is built on the myth of its founder, whose miraculous medical recovery inspired him to devote his life to alternative medicine. But that story isn’t quite what it appears to be. And for the people who believe in it, they can sometimes pay a high price.
Stay with us.
CH: Nicole Einbinder is an investigative journalist at Business Insider. Last year, her editor asked her to start looking into this essential oils company called Young Living.
NICOLE EINBINDER: It was supposed to be, maybe I spend a month on it, maybe I spend a few weeks, talking to some people, doing some research…never thought it would turn into this huge thing.
CH: Over the past year, Nicole has spoken to over 80 people and reviewed thousands of pages of FDA and court records about Young Living. A year ago, she flew out to Salt Lake City, Utah for the company’s 25th anniversary convention.
NE: It’s a four day long convention and it was really long days. So I was out there for like 10 hours or so, and just jam packed with workshops all during the day on essential oils and how to run the business. And then these grand spectacles of events in the evening.
CH: Like what?
Ne: Like an Imagine Dragons concert.
[Imagine Dragons clip]
CH: Yeah. This company is no joke. It’s got celebrity endorsements from people like Kristin Cavallari and Ellen Pompeo. The 2019 convention attracted 32,000 people from all over the world.
NE: There were people of all walks of life and all various ages that were there. There were men there with an “Oil Boss” hat on their head. A lot of stay at home moms, a lot of people who are both really religious people from conservative towns in the middle of the country, and really liberal yogis in Southern California and the East coast.
CH: Young Living is a multi-level marketing company, which means that many of the thousands of people at this conference, and the thousands more who didn’t attend, are like salespeople. They’re called “members” and they don’t just buy the oils for themselves, they turn around and sell them to other people, and try to recruit more people to start their own Young Living sales chains. For many of them, that means this company has become their community.
NE: You know, for the entire year, they hadn’t seen each other in real life. They saw each other behind the bright screen of a computer, on Facebook groups and all of this and finally they’re together with their people, with their oilies.
CH: With their oilies, that’s what they call one another?
CH: So, I mean, why do people get involved with them? I mean, why is that?
NE: One, for the love of the products. I spoke to a lot of members at the convention last July who told me they absolutely swear by the oils:
MEMBER: It has changed my life. My blood pressure is down.
NE: Essential oils are concentrated liquids distilled from plants. They’ve been around for centuries, and people are drawn to their smell, to scent products and perfumes.
MEMBER: I use lavender a lot for every different thing
NE: So the thing about essential oils is, they can help you relax. People have used oils like peppermint to reduce nausea or lavender to help de-stress. The problem though is that some people are also using them to treat serious medical conditions. And they’re not just using them for their smell, they’re applying them to their skin or they’re even ingesting them.
MEMBER: I have a son with special needs and he’s no longer on any medicine
MEMBER: I haven’t used an over the counter drug in five years. Every little ailment, you have a headache, period cramps
MEMBER: Oh, there’s an oil for that. (laughs)
NE: The issue though is there just isn’t a ton of research about any of those disease claims.
CH: If you search on PubMed, which is like Google for medical research, you’ll find lots of studies about essential oils.
NE: “Frankincense, pine needle and geranium essential oils suppress tumor progression through the regulation of the AMPK/mTOR pathway in breast cancer” or “Essential Oils: A New Horizon in Combating Bacterial Antibiotic Resistance.”
CH: So those sound good.
NE: They sound great. Yeah. The thing is, according to the medical experts that I spoke to, most of these studies lack scientific evidence and are clinically irrelevant.
CH: In other words, most of them aren’t randomized studies. They include lots of words like “possibly” and “probable.” They often aren’t even tested on humans. But that doesn’t keep people from citing them.
NE: There’s a lot of private Facebook groups where people who are involved with Young Living congregate, and every single day you go on there and they’re just asking questions about, ‘What oil can I use for this XYZ skin problem?’ You know, it gets more serious. ‘What oil should I use for my family member that has cancer?’ And that’s kind of where the danger of all of this arises, that there is just not a lot of good research actually out there, but there’s a lot of people making claims about what the oils can do.
CH: In a statement to Business Insider, Young Living said that it actively monitors social media channels and freezes or removes accounts that make “non-compliant claims” about the oils. But Nicole still came across many of these kinds of posts in her reporting.
CH: So how regulated is the industry?
NE: That’s a good question because it’s not really regulated at all and that’s kind of what the issue is here.
CH: That sounds a little crazy, like how can you sell a product that claims to have medical benefits that isn’t scientifically proven or government regulated? Well, you can’t. But essential oils are not legally considered medicine. Which means they don’t have to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration before they put their product on the market.
NE: As long as they don’t make claims that their products are intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, they’re in the clear.
CH: Because the second they make those claims, the FDA considers them a drug. And that means they need approval. But it doesn’t seem like it’s that hard to fly under the FDA’s drug radar. For example, there’s this book called the Essential Oils Desk Reference that Nicole picked up while she was at the conference. It’s a thick, 640-page textbook that outlines all of Young Living’s products and the various ways you can use them.
NE: It has oils for leukemia, for congestive heart failure, for cholera, for lupus, for measles. The book describes what oils should be used to repair the trauma of sexual abuse.
CH: “Apply 1 to 3 drops of SARA over the area where the abuse took place, then Forgiveness, Trauma Life, Release, Joy, Present Time.” Those are all names of Young Living oil blends.
NE: This book makes all the claims that Young Living itself can’t make. It’s directly making disease claims, and that’s why this book isn’t sold by Young Living. It’s sold by another company, Life Science Publishing.
CH: That might be why the book wasn’t technically sold at the convention Nicole went to. Life Science Publishing employees directed her, and other interested buyers, to a hotel across the street where they could buy the book.
In a statement, Young Living said it has “disassociated itself from the desk reference.” And Life Science Publishing told Nicole the book “is a resource to be used for educational purposes and not in connection with the sale of any essential oils.” And that readers are urged to rely on their health care providers for medical treatment.
But the book is a popular resource for Young Living members. And the publisher’s own website calls the book the “authority on all things Young Living.”
LIFE SCIENCE PUBLISHING: LSP is a pivotal momentum for the whole company, people are coming to me going ‘how do I do this?’ And then with your tools, with LSP, has been an amazing bridge…
CH: This video is on the Life Science Publishing YouTube page. And you can hear highly-ranked Young Living members talk about the book:
LIFE SCIENCE PUBLISHING: …I was just started and I called it my little Bible and I took it everywhere…
NE: Religion plays a big role. And you know at the center of this company, this product, this love of Young Living is Gary Young.
CH: Donald Gary Young. He’s the Indiana Jones-esque guy you met earlier. And one of the authors of that 640-page book. Gary, as he’s called, is the founder of Young Living Essential Oils. In fact, the entire company is built around his life story. Even though Gary died in 2018, his presence lives on in the company.
NE: He is just absolutely utterly loved by those involved with the company. And that was obvious as I was walking around at the convention last year. You know, there were shirts that read, keep calm and Gary on.
MEMBER: Gary used, created oils for a purpose.
MEMBER: He never makes a product just for profit, it’s always for a reason.
MEMBER: When somebody said ‘no you can’t do that, or you can’t do this,’ he found ways, he still continued. He is the father of this entire industry.
NE: Frankly, the guy was mesmerizing. I mean, he knew how to command a stage. One former employee told me about how once during a convention, he saw Gary actually backstage anointing babies with frankincense oil, these women were literally just fawning all over him and handing him their babies. And he would dump this oil on their head and…yeah I mean the guy was god-like, that’s how a former employee described him to me.
CH: Young Living says “the company has evolved far beyond its founder’s unique history. To be sure, Gary was a maverick within the industry and had strong beliefs about essential oils and their uses.”
But there are people, like Nicole, who have investigated Gary. Because Young Living is not all medical miracles and inspiring stories.
NE: I spoke to this 18 year old boy named Miguel, who told me that he’s really worried about his mom’s reliance on the oils.
MIGUEL: If I go to my mom and I tell her that I’m hurt or if I scraped my knee, her first instinct is to pull out those oils and not the first aid.
NE: He told me about how his mom had ruptured her appendix, but instead of going to the doctor, she tried to treat herself with the Young Living oils. And even after she was admitted to the ER, and in excruciating pain, had emergency surgery, she kept using the oils.
MIGUEL: She had this huge wound from her appendix rupture and she would put oils onto her open wound.
I’ve been very forward with telling her like ‘I don’t think these oils really work,’ and then she completely disregards it saying that like, ‘oh no Gary knows what he’s doing’
NE: He was incredibly dangerous because this guy’s not a doctor.
CH: Gary’s story, after the break.
CH: We’re back. Young Living owns nearly 2,000 acres of farmland in Ecuador, where it grows and experiments with oil-producing plants. It also has a distillery there and a school.
YOUNG LIVING ECUADOR: Welcome to Young Living Academy in Chongon, Ecuador.
CH: For Young Living members in search of a luxury retreat, there’s also a clinic called Nova Vita. The website calls it an “essential oils rejuvenation spa,” but it offers more than just hot stone massages and facials. Nicole found that people there can get intravenous injections of essential oils.
NE: So I spoke to this one former employee in the process of reporting this series—she didn’t want her name included in the story for fear of retribution, so let’s call her Sophia to protect her privacy. When talking to Sophia, she told me some pretty disturbing things about what she saw in Ecuador.
SOPHIA: At the farm, there was just tens of people who had IV bags that were just walking around seriously, Dawn of the Dead. It was so creepy. Sickening.
NE: One of the most dangerous aspects of the oils is the false hope that they place in people who do have really serious illness, and they might be facing the possibility of death and they don’t want to die. And they turn to anything, any last hope, anything that could make them feel better, anything that can save them, and they view oils as their answer.
SOPHIA: People will send their relatives down to Ecuador for cancer treatments. And they talked about it as if it was, you know, saving their lives.
NE: I spoke to another former employee, let’s call him David. We’ve changed his name and altered his voice because he fears retaliation for speaking about Young Living. And he told me he actually saw Gary treating a local Ecuadorian man for cancer with these essential oil IV treatments.
DAVID: And I’ll never forget that the poor gentleman was in a, uh, a very poor house and had kind of a, a gurney type bed with ropes to help him get in and out of the bed. And Gary had apparently provided them with a number of bags of IV solution. The lady had kept these in the freezer and then had taken these out of the freezer and let them thaw a little bit, and then connected her father up to the IVs and her father was in a great amount of pain and Gary goes over and he looks at the IV and you could still see a chunk of ice in the center of the IV bag.
You know, Gary was frustrated that the lady couldn’t understand his very broken Spanish and when we learned that that gentleman died, it’s ‘oh, you know, they just didn’t follow my instructions.’
NE: Whether we know if the essential oils caused his death, that remains uncertain.
CH: Business Insider has not seen an autopsy report, and we don’t know that the oils were the cause. When we asked Young Living about these allegations, it didn’t respond.
NE: He may have been sick enough that he was going to die anyway, but he placed all this trust in Gary.
CH: The reason so many people trust Gary is because of his life story.
NE: When Gary was in his early twenties in 1973, he suffered a near fatal logging accident.
YOUNG LIVING VIDEO: There’s a chance he may never walk again…
CH: It’s a story that’s told at conventions, referenced on company websites, reenacted in promotional videos…
YOUNG LIVING VIDEO: When Young Living founder and CEO, D. Gary Young, began using essential oils following his recovery from a devastating accident, he didn’t know that he was embarking on a journey…
NE: The injuries from the accident were devastating. 19 broken bones, three open skull fractures, a ruptured spinal cord, nearly a dozen ruptured spinal discs…
He attempted to starve himself to death, drinking only water and lemon juice and 253 days later, according to the story, he felt movement in this right toe and he spent 27 months in a wheelchair before learning to walk again.
YOUNG LIVING VIDEO: As the result of a near-fatal logging accident, I’d come to the realization that I only had one option, that was either to accept it or to do something about it.
NE: And this is where the story kind of diverges a little bit from what court records told me about the accident versus how his third wife Mary described the accident.
CH: According to Mary, and plenty of Young Living promotional materials, surviving this logging accident was Gary’s first miracle.
MARY YOUNG: Many of the formulas that we have, he made for himself. He was always looking for things that would give him a little bit more strength.
NE: I mean, according to their telling, that accident was supposed to be the end of it for him.
MY: They left him out in the hallway outside of the emergency ward because they knew he was going to die. But he didn’t die.
NE: It was his introduction to the world of “alternative health” that miraculously saved him and gave him a renewed lease on life. And the thing about Gary is… he really seemed to have believed that. He talked about a God-given mission to get these oils into the hands of people who needed them because he believed they’d helped him.
CH: So he’s in a hospital. And he decides he’s only going to drink water with lemon, no food, that’s it for almost a year. And then he starts to feel a sensation in his toe and he thought he was going to be paralyzed, unable to walk?
NE: Yeah, after that he was in a wheelchair for 27 months before learning to walk again. And from there going on to live his life completely fine.
CH: And what is the truth?
NE: According to court records, he did have a logging accident, but he was hospitalized and then wheelchair-bound for only four months. The same year as this accident, he went back to work as a part-time trucker in British Columbia.
CH: So the 27 months that he says he was in a wheelchair, around the same time, he was also working on a pipeline and as a truck driver and doing a lot of other things?
CH: And that’s not the only part of his story that doesn’t add up. Young Living’s website and Gary’s official biography, say the company’s roots go back to the early ’90s, when Gary met his third wife, Mary. Who by the way, wrote that official biography.
NE: You know, according to the book, there is this happy family: it’s Gary, Mary, their two teenage boys. They run this really wholesome company with religious influence and love the oils and everything is grand and cheerful and happy, but what’s left out of the official biography of his life are, for example, eight other children from two prior marriages.
CH: That’s just not in the biography?
NE: They’re just not there. Yeah. They’re all skipped over. They also skip over how one of his daughters died in the early 1980s while he was trying to personally deliver her in a Whirlpool bath.
It was in Spokane, Washington. Gary operated a health club. And he had six children with his first wife, four out of the six he delivered himself. And he did it for a seventh child, a baby girl, and she died. And according to a county coroner, who told the local newspaper at the time, the baby girl remained underwater for almost an hour before she was removed.
The incident spurred local authorities to begin looking into this guy and they began secretly investigating Gary. Police officers posed as a pregnant couple seeking medical advice. And Gary ended up offering them prenatal services and said he could treat cancer. And let’s just say that didn’t go over well. And he was arrested and pled guilty to practicing medicine without a license.
ch: At the time, Gary and his first wife were operating an herb shop and nutrition center. But after this, he picked up and moved to California. He went on to open a health company in San Diego, along with a clinic right across the US-Mexico border. There, he offered a variety of “treatments” to cure diseases like cancer and MS.NE: Bioelectrical cell activator therapy, blood crystallization tests, live cell analysis, administering IVs, and intramuscular injections of vitamins and minerals, lots of wacky things that were later debunked by actual medical professionals when the state of California started looking into this.
CH: By the ’90s, Gary had been through three lawsuits and a stay in jail. When we asked Young Living about Gary’s story, they said, “we are saddened that past events and actions by the company founder who is now deceased are being dredged up and mischaracterized.”
NE: So what happens next is a miraculous turn of events for Gary, where his luck started to change for the better. And that was when he met his third wife, Mary.
CH: And this is where the story of Young Living starts — with Gary and Mary opening a farm and a distillery. Gary started referring to himself as an N.D., or “naturopathic doctor.” He gave lectures on essential oils as “the missing link” in modern medicine.
GARY YOUNG: Essential oils have the ability – because they are soluble with the lipids in the membrane – to go through the cellular wall and to carry with it nutrients they are in association with.
CH: And making all sorts of promises about the powers of his oils to “treat, cure, and prevent disease.”
GARY YOUNG: Because we discovered that hearing could be restored with the oil of Helichrysum…not only from loss of hearing, but from deafness…
GARY YOUNG: If you ever feel depressed or manic depressant or suicidal, a couple of drops and just rub it right there and it will take it away in a matter of seconds…
GARY YOUNG: How many would sooner have chemotherapy than a bottle of Lavender oil? Now this is something that’s very exciting…
CH: And people around the world started turning to oils instead of taking Advil … they started using them for cleaning, eating, even injecting. Melissa Armstrong was one of those people — she’s an air force veteran whose friend told her…
MELISSA ARMSTRONG: You know, use that with a lot of prayer and your PTSD will go away! (laughs)
NE: So Melissa started having her doubts about the oils after using them for a few years. Like when she tried using peppermint to cure a headache but it just made it worse, or when she put some citrus oil in with her water and it instead ate the lining of her cup.
MA: If it’s gonna do that to a cup, what’s it doing to my insides? And there were people bringing stuff up like that in groups and people were getting kicked out for asking simple questions like that. It was maddening because I was sold a bill of goods.
NE: She says she tried raising these issues with Young Living’s customer service and well, it didn’t get her anywhere. Eventually she stopped her Young Living business altogether.
CH: Sophia, that former employee, was on the other end of the customer service line, answering desperate calls from members like Melissa.
SOPHIA: As a form of contraception, people would put oils on their genitalia in hopes that it would act as a spermicide and people would get massive burns or, ingesting it, I mean, none of these were told to do by the company, but there were several pieces of literature out there that were created either by Gary or in partnership with him that had several methods of using the oils that caused people harm.
CH: Young Living told us it “does not advocate the use of essential oils outside of the labelled usage instructions and the advice of any individual’s medical doctors.”
As Young Living grew, Gary’s speeches and the 640-page essential oils desk reference book that he co-wrote, it all started attracting the attention of the government.
NE: The thing was though Young Living was so huge at that point that Gary couldn’t hop to a new state or talk his way out of things. Something seriously had to change.
CH: That’s after the break.
CH: We’re back.
From the beginning, Young Living has been structured as a multilevel marketing company.
NE: There’s a bunch of sellers in the company. But they’re not salaried. They’re not actual employees, they’re members. And they can “grow their business” by recruiting more sellers underneath them, to whom they will sell their products.
CH: So I mean, how much does the structure of Young Living play into its ability to be so successful?
NE: I mean, it seems from my reporting that the multilevel marketing model is really successful in allowing Young Living to keep in technical compliance with FDA laws. And the company itself they are not explicitly making these claims, they’re not explicitly saying that oils can treat XYZ disease. The problem though is other people are saying these things and that’s how these messages are being touted.
CH: Remember, when Gary founded the company, he’d been in trouble with the law. There was only so much he could say about the medical benefits of his products before he risked getting in trouble again. But with a multi-level marketing structure, he didn’t have to do all of the talking. He had thousands of members spreading the gospel of Young Living through word-of-mouth, and bringing in others to spread it along with them.
NE: The way you can really make money in this business is by recruiting more people. And then you can earn their commission.
CH: Do, do people who are selling Young Living actually make money from it?
NE: You know, some people do. The thing though is that’s very rare. 89% of all members make an average $4 a year in commission and bonuses.
NE: $4. Yeah. And that doesn’t include any expenses.
CH: Young Living members can even lose money trying to sell essential oils. That’s what Miguel says happened to his mother. Not only did she try to treat her burst appendix with Young Living products, he says she also lost thousands of dollars.
MIGUEL: My dad would sometimes pull me aside saying that like, ‘your mom is like overcharging the credit card on YL purchases.’
NE: I talked to several former members who told me they actually spent more on the Young Living products than they actually made.
CH: Nicole worked with a multilevel marketing expert to analyze Young Living’s income statements, and he found that the top 1% of members received more than 70% of the company’s commission payments. That means people at the top are raking it in, while most members are not.
We asked Young Living about this and the company said its income statement “is clear and provides a realistic view of the opportunity for potential members. As in many other well-respected business models, the success of participants varies greatly.”
Gary himself appeared to do well – he bought private planes and horses and a 1.3 million dollar home in Salt Lake City.
NE: I mean they, they spent money on some oddball projects. He loves jousting. So he had the company construct a jousting arena so that he could, decked out in armor, go out and joust on a horse. He once proposed building an amusement park that was to be a quasi-essential oils slash religion type experience. Luckily never ended up coming into fruition, but it was something that he wanted and that management had to kind of say, ‘Hold on, Gary, we can’t do this.’
CH: That management team, who stopped Gary from building an essential oils Disneyland, that’s the buoy that’s kept his company afloat. Gary might have been running the show, but as the years went on, his business had become bigger than him — and he had a team of employees whose job it was to keep him in line. That’s what several former employees told Nicole, including David.
DAVID: When I first got there, there was very little review of labels and literature and things like that. And so that was one of the first things that I did was try and set up systems, but most of the stuff had to be run through the Youngs. And a lot of times, uh, throughout the course of my tenure there, it took some convincing (laughs) to put it gently.
NE: David said that he and other Young Living employees had to do this delicate dance, trying to negotiate with Gary. They had to convince him that even if he really believed the oils could last forever because they’d been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, they still needed to put expiration dates on the bottles. Or there were the times that they had to remove “Gary Young, N.D.” from the labels because he wasn’t an actual doctor.
DAVID: We had it taken off a number of times and it found its way back on a number of times and we had it taken off again and then mysteriously, it would appear back on, you go and talk to the people. And ‘well Gary told us that we had to do this!’ And yes, it was, it was a challenge.
NE: And for a long time, the Young Living staff couldn’t really control Gary, so he pretty much said whatever he wanted to.
DAVID: A lot of times, even though we would warn him that he couldn’t say things about oils, um, he would do it anyway, go around our back or, you know, at a convention where, you know, he’s on stage and there are, you know, 2,000 people out in the audience, he would just say stuff he would present, x-rays saying, you know, this oil healed me in this way.
GARY YOUNG: The picture up at the top right, that’s some MRIs of my spine.
DAVID: He would get up on stage and tell all of these people, all of these wonderful stories that I really think he himself believed. And that’s what created the following in Gary as almost a quasi-religious figure.
SOPHIA: He would really talk about healing powers of oils specifically.
CH: That’s Sophia, a former Young Living employee, again.
SOPHIA: He would tell the story about how his son had cut his hand and was bleeding everywhere. And like he was prompted by God to grab this oil and pour it on his hand. And then he saw the blood coagulating in the hand. And how he talks about taking Mary out of menopause with oils so that she could bear their two children.
CH: We asked Young Living about these specific allegations, and it didn’t respond.
Young Living’s employees tried to keep Gary from flagrantly breaking the rules, but for the most part, he made whatever claims he wanted about the medical powers of the oils.
DAVID: You have these rules out there, the FDA rules, for example, and you have a voluntary system of compliance. And if you decide not to comply, nothing happens unless you’re caught. And so that was always a struggle is if we decided not to comply and Gary hadn’t complied for years and nothing happened because he was so small. And so there was a constant battle in trying to get Gary to see that the risk in noncompliance was not worth whatever gain he thought he may get.
CH: By 2014, Young Living wasn’t so small anymore. It had over 1,000 employees and 530,000 active members around the world. The next year, it would surpass $1 billion in annual sales. Then one day, in September 2014, it received a letter.
NE: The FDA had been investigating websites and social media accounts from Young Living members and it gave the company with a warning letter, saying that they needed to stop its members from making false claims about the medical powers of the oils. They had discovered that some members were making claims that the oils could treat conditions like Ebola, Parkinson’s disease, autism, hypertension, cancer, insomnia, heart disease, dementia, multiple sclerosis, you name it. It was, it was bad.
CH: Well, how did Young Living respond?
NE: You know, they had a compliance team that was monitoring social media, scouring the internet, and making sure that members weren’t making inappropriate claims. And Young’s employees redoubled their efforts to keep Gary and their members in line.
SOPHIA: So every time he spoke, we had a compliance department come in and they had a flashlight at the back of a room. And every time he got close to making a claim, you know, a health claim about a certain oil, then they would sit there and flash the light.
NE: They also changed the way they talked about the oils. Basically, if they slightly rephrased how they talked about them, they could get away with suggesting that the oils still can cure disease, but not explicitly saying that, for example, ‘this oil cures cancer.’
CH: Young Living didn’t respond to our questions about this letter from FDA or how the company addressed the regulator’s concerns. But less than a year after receiving the letter, Gary did explain this strategy to a group of Young Living members at a retreat on a farm in the middle in Idaho.
GARY YOUNG: We are going to fool them big time…
CH: “We are going to fool them big time…”
This recording was leaked to Business Insider by a former employee.
GARY YOUNG: We are not going to become conformists, but we will obey what they ask for until the time is right.
CH: Again, the former Young Living employee we’re calling Sophia.
SOPHIA: He thought that the FDA was hindering what his potential was towards spreading the good word.
NE: He went on to tell this group that when it comes to the letter of the law, they need to follow the FDA letter, but when it comes to religious health, the FDA has no jurisdiction.
GARY YOUNG: So as you go home, tell your distributors, tell your people, do what is requested at the moment, because there’s many things that you can do, and you know what? If you got a lump in your arm, you’ve got a lump in your neck, or you got a lump on your head, there is absolutely nothing that you cannot say about the spiritual use of your oils, right? [applause]
NE: So the company created a “say this, not that” document to tell members what they can and cannot say. So I’m looking at the document right now. And it has a green thumbs up for “say this” on the left hand side and a red thumbs down on the right for “not that.” So you can say, ‘I diffuse joy for a warming, comforting aroma,’ but you can’t say, ‘I diffuse joy to treat my depression.’
You can say, ‘I applied frankincense topically to help smooth the appearance of healthy looking skin.’ That’s great and you can say that, but you can’t say, ‘I apply frankincense topically on a spot on my arm that looks like skin cancer.’
CH: So not saying, ‘This is why you should buy it, it’ll help your arthritis or your skin cancer.’
NE: Exactly. Yeah. Some of the members are vigilant about that. If you go on these private Facebook groups, I joined a few of them. You have people who are very, very cautious. If you look in the comment section when people are asking questions about things, they say, ‘Make sure you stay in compliance.’ Yeah I mean, they don’t want their company to shut down. They love Young Living.
CH: But even with all the new restrictions, employees struggled to reign Gary in. He continued making unproven medical claims in private. He was hard to control.
NE: And that’s honestly the biggest contradiction of Young Living is they’re trying to be this legitimate company and sell their products and do things correctly. And they brought in all these people who, frankly, a lot of former employees I talked to were pretty skeptical of essential oils. So there’s that tension between the employees who are doing everything they can to keep the company in line versus these members who are joining this company because yeah, they think it could potentially heal X, Y, Z disease. And when the founder of the company also supports that sort of ideology. It’s not a conducive cocktail.
CH: Here again is David, a former employee at Young Living.
DAVID: Most of the people that Gary, I think serendipitously, surrounded himself with saved him and his company, despite him. And we often said, ‘you know, the Gary, the company is as big as it is because of Gary and the company is as small as it is because of Gary.’
CH: Gary died in 2018. 100,000 people around the world tuned in to watch the livestream of his funeral. Percheron horses carried his casket that was topped with a cowboy hat. His wife Mary, who’s a former opera singer, sang a heartfelt tribute.[Mary Funeral Song]
NE: According to the company, Gary died from complications from a series of strokes. But according to one of his sons from his first marriage, he actually died of cancer.
CH: Why would the company say he died of something that perhaps he didn’t die of?
NE: You know if it’s true, we can never know for sure what they were thinking, but when talking to one of Gary’s sons, he told me that he believes that Mary and the company lied to the public because of the way that they claimed Young Living can fix everything. She was worried that this would ruin Young Living if the truth came out that he really passed away of cancer. And that these essential oils that he spent decades claiming that he could cure cancer, if that’s what he ultimately succumbed to.
CH: Young Living didn’t respond to our questions about Gary’s death. They told us, “The company has instituted robust compliance practices and complies with applicable laws. As it is today, Young Living is a health and wellness company that strives to make the world a better place.”
Today, Young Living has over 6 million members around the world. In recent months, some members have falsely promoted the oils as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The company says it actively searches for and removes improper COVID-related claims, including business opportunity claims made by members.
Elsewhere, Young Living is facing a class action lawsuit that alleges it is “nothing more than a cult-like organization falsely peddling the ever-elusive promise of financial success and an alternative lifestyle.” When we asked Young Living about these allegations, it didn’t respond.
NE: Young Living is a company that was created by this guy that was very passionate. He truly loved these oils and these products were his life. It may not have been fact. It may not have been reality, but it was his reality, and that was all that mattered.
CH: Gary may be gone, but what he left in his wake is an industry that’s filled with his ideas. Those beliefs inspire people to buy and sell and use Young Living essential oils. But beliefs alone are not enough to save lives.
Nicole Einbinder is an investigative reporter at Business Insider. If you want to read more of her reporting about Gary Young, Young Living and essential oils — and there is a lot more — consider subscribing to Business Insider. Just go to businessinsider.com/btyb, or click on the link in our episode description.
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This episode was produced by Julia Press, with Sarah Wyman and me, Charlie Herman. Special thanks to Claire Banderas, Tyler Murphy and Anneke Ball.
Our editor is Micaela Blei, and Bill Moss is our sound engineer. Music is from Audio Network. John DeLore and Casey Holford composed our theme. Dan Bobkoff is the podfather. Sarah Wyman is our showrunner.
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