Critics say locally born 'male enhancement' product S.W.A.G. packaging promotes rape and the FDA warns consumers about its contents
By EDWARD ERICSON JR.
Mar 24, 2015 | 5:55 PM
It’s Baltimore-born, maybe Maryland-made, and supposedly contains “caterpillar fungus,” but one woman’s main concern about Sex With A Grudge (S.W.A.G.)-brand male enhancement dietary supplements is what’s on the outside of the package.
"I believe it is an issue of public health in that it actively promotes rape," Seema Shah-Nelson, a Baltimore designer who happened on the product at a gas station, wrote in a recent email to Baltimore Health Commissioner Leana Wen that she shared with City Paper. "I shudder to think of kids who might be buying a pack of gum and coming eye to eye with this product that normalizes rape."
Shah-Nelson was offended to find S.W.A.G., whose package depicts sexualized stick figures, the female one with flames shooting from its crotch, hanging at a child's eye level at the Tiger Mart across from Lynne Brick's main gym on York Road. The text on the package, which includes two pills, reads "1 to Hurt It, 2 to Kill It." Shah-Nelson did not have her children with her, but "what concerned me is that it's made," she says. "And is not in some warehouse district or seedy sex shop where creepy people go."
As it turns out, though, S.W.A.G. apparently is from a "warehouse district" and its active ingredient is a big part of why it is problematic. Its existence owes not only to the Constitution's First Amendment but also to a flagrantly religious U.S. senator from Utah, whose stalwart service on behalf of modern-day patent medicine hucksters has allowed (according to available public records) a twice-convicted Maryland thief to practice medicine without a license—with practical impunity.
"We are looking into this issue," Wen emailed Shah-Nelson back. "It appears that the product is approved by the FDA."
It is not true that Sex With A Grudge is "approved by the FDA." In fact, the FDA , in April 2014, issued a "notification" on its website "advising consumers not to purchase or use S.W.A.G."
"FDA laboratory analysis confirmed that S.W.A.G contains sildenafil, the active ingredient in the FDA approved prescription drug Viagra," the notification says.
At first, Baltimore City Health Department officials said they couldn't do much about it.
"[W]e have determined that there are no provisions in the health code that specifically relate to such products," Health Department spokesman Michael Schwartzberg wrote City Paper in an email. "The Food and Drug Administration has regulatory authority over the contents of the product and has already issued a warning to consumers. We are committed to protecting the health and safety of all our residents in compliance with state and federal regulations."
It is, in fact, illegal to sell Viagra without a prescription, confirms Chris Kelly, a spokesman for the FDA's office of Drug Enforcement Actions. By logical extension, it is also illegal to mislabel Viagra as "caterpillar fungus" (as the S.W.A.G. label does) and sell it for $7 or $10 a dose in gas stations. But that does not mean it is not profitable or easy to find.
"It is a constant issue that we have with bad players out there," Kelly says. Two days later he emails "talking points," which include:
"FDA has identified an emerging trend where over-the-counter products, frequently represented as dietary supplements, contain hidden activeingredients that could be harmful.
"There are significant public health problems posed by these products.
"FDA has received numerous reports of serious adverse events associated with consumer use of these tainted products including strokes, acute liver injury, kidney failure, pulmonary embolisms (artery blockage in the lung), and death.
"Over the past decade, FDA has encountered more than 500 such products, most commonly in products marketed for weight loss, sexual enhancement, and bodybuilding."
Also, FDA can't do much about this or, as policy, "discuss pending or potential enforcement actions except with the firms and individuals who are the subject of those actions."
The FDA's impotence is by design of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, or the DSHEA, which allowed the entrepreneurs of various miracle cures to operate unfettered—often using multilevel marketing schemes to amp up the scam quotient. For more than two decades, the senior Republican senator from the hotbed dietary supplement state of Utah, Sen. Orrin Hatch, has tirelessly blocked efforts to tighten restrictions and bolster enforcement of existing laws prohibiting the manufacture and sale of potentially dangerous mixtures of active drugs and various secret herbs and spices. Hatch has become infamous in this regard, but he is not a solo act. Congress by now has a whole "Dietary Supplement Caucus" protecting the interests of those who have quietly returned America to the Patent Medicine age it last enjoyed a century ago.
All this to say: Nothing on the label (or website) of any "dietary supplement"—be it for muscle building, sexual potency, weight loss, or other purpose—can be taken at face value.
But while every supplement label's overall veracity is suspect, one part of the S.W.A.G. story—the part that says "Made in U.S.A."—may have a kernel of truth. According to the available public records, Sex With A Grudge was born in Baltimore.
It is available from a Patapsco Avenue wholesaler.
And although the people there deny it, state corporate records and a retailer indicate that S.W.A.G. originates in a warehouse about seven miles from the FDA's Silver Spring headquarters.
Just who is really behind the product is rather hard to determine, but here is what City Paper found on the trail of S.W.A.G.
The product package and website advertises that it is distributed by 221 Enterprises, LLC.
On April 11, 2011 Baronne Fleming established 221 Enterprises LLC at 3700 Koppers St., suite 147. This is an office building with a fair amount of medical services—the sort of place one might expect find an actual pharmaceutical lab—but suite 147 no longer exists and none of the several tenants City Paper visited could recall the company or the man.
On paper, Fleming would appear an unlikely inventor of potent herbal remedies. He is not registered as a compounding pharmacist, for example. He does not appear to have a medical degree. The 49-year-old racked up a series of criminal theft charges in the 1980s, '90s, and 2000s, including a federal charge of theft and embezzlement of U.S. property in 2004. That case was, for some reason, not adjudicated until 2014, and the sentence imposed then is not listed. City Paper tried emailing Fleming and calling the number listed on S.W.A.G.'s website. The phone message said there was no voicemail set up; there was no response to the email. A phone call to the lawyer listed in his federal criminal case was not returned.
In July 2013 221 Enterprises—which is still in good standing with state tax authorities—filed papers to change its address to 9900 Greenbelt Road, suite 133. In December of that same year it moved again, to 11316 Old Baltimore Pike, Beltsville.
City Paper finds a UPS store on Greenbelt Road and a warehouse on Old Baltimore Pike, which in this section is a rutted street dotted with no-parking signs. The aluminum and glass door is locked; a tall, young south-Asian man with a crop of curly hair on his head opens the door, which leads into a narrow hallway with another door at the end and one on the wall in the middle. He flinches slightly when asked about Baronne Fleming and 221 Enterprises. "They're not here," he says, but tells a reporter to stand by.
The tall young man goes through the side door into the office. There is discussion behind the door in a foreign language, and then an older, heavier, and shorter south-Asian man, his curly hair flecked with gray, his face slack, opens that door. He repeats that Fleming is not here. "Wrong address," he says. "We get his mail sometimes."
Asked what is here, the man replies, "Warehouse."
It is a distribution company? "Yes."
City Paper had already asked a clerk at the Belvedere Tiger Mart—the gas station where Shah-Nelson first spotted S.W.A.G.—where he bought the product. The man said it came from a company called Maryland Wholesale. He said it was the same outfit that supplied them 5-Hour Energy.
The paper then researched several companies with similar names, finding that those in and around Baltimore are, according to state tax records, defunct.
There is a prominent 5-Hour Energy display in the office here in Beltsville. The man is asked what other products this company distributes. Do you supply gas stations?
"He is not here," the man repeats. "It is wrong address." He hands a reporter's card back, stiffly. He is asked for his card and he retrieves one from his desk. It reads "Wholesale Maryland."
The man is told that the Exxon clerk gave the reporter a similar name.
"There is another Maryland Wholesaler," the man says with a smile. "Not us."
In fact, "Wholesale Maryland" is not registered as a corporate or trade name with Maryland tax authorities. It does have a website, however, and a 15-page catalog of items—including 5-Hour Energy—it distributes to retail outlets like gas stations.
The wholesale goods company registered to Wholesale Maryland's address is called KDS-2 Inc. It was founded in October 2010 by Anil K. Sharma. He was not there when City Paper returned to the warehouse, but a lot of merchandise was piled on pallets outside the door. None bore the S.W.A.G. label.
A man working behind the thick plexiglass at the Belvedere Tiger Mart, who writes down his name as Bal B. Aurung in this reporter's notebook, examines the Wholesale Maryland business card and says Wholesale Maryland is the distributor of S.W.A.G. City Paper paid him $7 for the product—four dollars below the advertised price on the S.W.A.G. website. We found the red packaging with its calculatedly offensive flaming stick-figure sex icons right where Shah-Nelson said it would be, next to the cashier's window, about 40 inches off the floor.
Aurung assures the reporter that the store doesn't sell anything that is not legal. This product is sold everywhere, at other gas stations, he says, gesturing as if to point up and down York Road. The Crown station has it too.
Visits to two Crown stations on York Road find S.W.A.G. in one of them, and competing products (Rhino 7, anyone?) in both—though both locations displayed the labels above a tall man's eye level. The clerk at the Crown station at 5101 York Road says Maryland Wholesale is not his S.W.A.G. supplier: "We have a contract with Triple C."
A woman who answers the phone at that company, located at 2801 W. Patapsco Ave., readily confirms its S.W.A.G. dealership status. Told of the offense taken by Shah-Nelson, she scoffs. "I thought it was funny," she says.
Asked her name, she replies with an initial and a last, P. Winder. "We find it to be laughable," she repeats. Winder says she can't help locate S.W.A.G.'s actual proprietor, though, as Triple C orders the product via email. "We don't even have a phone number." She says she has the same UPS mailbox address City Paper has.
If the FDA cannot shut down 221 Enterprises then it is probably safe to say that it can't shut down any illegal distributor of prescription medications, no matter how they are labeled. But, as a clerk at the Tiger Mart explains in a phone interview, the product has been a good seller to men between the ages of 35 and 50. "Sell a lot of them on the weekend," the clerk, who did not give his name, says. "Nobody complain."
Just before this story went to press, Mary Beth Haller, the assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Environmental Health, emailed Shah-Nelson. "I think in an earlier email, we informed you that the Food and Drug Administration has regulatory authority over the contents of the product and there are no specific provisions in our Health Code related to over-the-counter 'remedies' of this sort," Haller wrote. "Likewise, the regulation of offensive advertising (commercial speech) does not fall within the authority of the Health Department.
"Nonetheless, we do have authority over licensed food facilities and Belvedere Exxon happens to be one. In the Baltimore City Health Code, 'food' is defined as anything (except liquor) that is intended for human consumption. That makes S.W.A.G. food and a licensee may only sell food that is properly labeled. S.W.A.G. isn't. We have issued a violation notice to the facility and they immediately removed S.W.A.G. products from their shelves." She added that the gas station's operator was "very cooperative" and complied quickly. A few days later, a call to the Belvedere Tiger Mart confirmed that they no longer sell the product, but a visit to the Crown station at 5101 York Road confirmed that it was still in stock there at press time.