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An Herbal Viagra Scam and the Hard Truth About the Dietary Supplement Industry

A prolific seller of “all-natural” sexual enhancement pills was shut down by the FDA. So why can you still buy Stiff Nights all over the place?

Illustration by Jorge Mascarenhas

In the early 2000s, a man named Erb Avore started selling a male sexual enhancement supplement he called Stiff Nights. The pills were amazingly effective—but the list of ingredients failed to mention a key component, and soon the Food and Drug Administration came calling. On Episode 32 of The Politics of Everything, hosts Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene talk to the journalist Matt Hongoltz-Hetling about the poorly regulated world of dietary supplements, Avore’s long quest to find an all-natural alternative to Viagra, and how the internet huckster tangled with the law. Hongoltz-Hetling’s article about Stiff Nights, “The Rise and Fall of an Herbal Viagra Scammer,” appeared in the July-August issue of The New Republic.  


Matt Hongoltz-Hetling: He’d go to the trade shows, and his booth was like the booth. He said people would come up, and they would shake his hand, and they would be crying because they would be so happy that his product had given them the sorts of erections that they wanted.

Laura Marsh: That’s the journalist Matt Hongoltz-Hetling. He’s talking about a man named Erb Avore. He spells his name E-R-B A-V-O-R-E. 

Alex Pareene: In the early 2000s, Erb started to sell a sexual enhancement supplement. He called it Stiff Nights. And the thing that was special about it was that it was meant to be completely natural.

Laura: This is not being sold as a drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration; it’s being sold like it’s vitamin D or probiotics. 

Alex: Exactly. No prescription required.

Laura: So I can see why his customers are treating him like he’s a rock star. But I’m curious: What’s political about this? What are the politics of Stiff Nights? 

Alex: The entire supplements aisle of your local pharmacy is a political space. Every product on the shelves is there because of political decisions made both by individual consumers and by Congress. There’s a reason the FDA didn’t have to approve Stiff Nights before it went to market, and a reason why so many men chose to buy that product instead of seeking a regulated pharmaceutical remedy for erectile dysfunction.

Laura: Today on the show, we’re talking about the murky world of unregulated supplements and Erb Avore’s quest for an all-natural male enhancement pill. 

Alex: We’re going to find out how he built his empire. 

Laura: And how he fell foul of the law. 

Alex: I’m Alex Pareene. 

Laura: And I’m Laura Marsh. 

Alex: This is The Politics of Everything.


Alex: Hey, Matt. Thank you so much for joining us today. 

Matt: I’m excited to be back. My second appearance—I fully expect to learn the secret handshake today. 

Alex: I was lightly mocked by my co-workers for trying to describe this the other day. But say, for example, you walk into a gas station, or here in Brooklyn you might walk into a corner store or a bodega, and maybe in one corner of the place or behind the guy at the register you might see for sale little bottles of strange pills with either pseudo-medical-sounding names or even things called ExtenZe or Rhino or other odd names. What are those pills? And what’s in them?

Matt: So you’re asking for a friend, that’s what you’re saying?

Alex: Exactly, I’m asking for a friend. 

Matt: Those pills are known as sexual enhancement supplements, and they’ve occupied a particular place in the legal landscape for about the last 25 years. What is in them? Nobody knows. 

Alex: That’s reassuring!

Matt: Some of them might have printer ink. Some of them might have arsenic or rat poison. Some of them, if by good fortune you’ve tapped into a reputable supply chain, will actually have what is advertised on the packaging. 

Alex: The selling point of these is that they are nonpharmaceutical alternatives to Viagra or Cialis, right?

Matt: That’s the idea. It’s all-natural Viagra. Maybe you don’t want for whatever reason to go to your doctor to get a Viagra prescription, maybe you don’t like pharmaceuticals—so this is the path that you choose when you’re trying to stiffen your erection.

Laura: This is a somewhat recent development: You haven’t always been able to walk into a corner store and buy these enhancements. And you have spent a long time delving into the life of someone who pioneered these supplements. Tell us a little bit about Erb Avore.

Matt: Yes, as odd as it sounds, Mr. Avore, who had his name legally changed to Erb Avore when he was a young man, is a vegan activist who is really into the idea that herbs can be used to enhance human functions in the bedroom. And many, many years of his life he devoted to trying to find the perfect all-natural supplement that would make this work.

Alex: Tell us about how the supplement industry itself came into being.

Matt: It’s almost as if the universe willed somebody like Erb Avore into existence. And if he didn’t come along, maybe somebody else would have, but there was a confluence of large-scale events that set the stage for a guy like Erb Avore to come along and start marketing a sexual enhancement supplement. The first thing was, in the mid-1990s, the passage of the DSHEA, the law of the land when it comes to regulating nutritional supplements of all sorts. That’s everything from probiotics to certain types of hormones to more garden-variety vitamins and minerals, the sorts of things that you pick up at your local GNC.

Laura: Matt’s talking about the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. The DSHEA changed the definition of what nutritional supplements were. Before, they were considered food additives, which meant manufacturers had to demonstrate that they were safe before marketing them. After the passage of the DSHEA, the burden of proof was on the FDA to prove an ingredient was harmful. 

Matt: And they did that by changing the definition to something that more closely resembles food and how food is regulated rather than how we might regulate a chemical additive.

Alex: If you’ve seen the supplement aisle at your drug store, even the vitamins will say that they’re not regulated like a drug. There are all these things that sort of make medical claims, but they can’t actually make real medical claims.

Matt: There’s a lot of implication, … a lot of tip-toeing right up to the line on what is a medical claim and what’s not. So DSHEA was one thing that opened the door for people to bring supplements, including sexual enhancement supplements, to market very, very easily. 

Alex: The other important factor was the internet. 

Matt: Before the internet came along, we dinosaurs will remember that if somebody wanted to sell a sexual enhancement supplement, they had to go to a big newspaper and take out an advertisement. And that’s expensive. It’s a big barrier. And it also holds you accountable to the consumer and to the media outlet. But with the internet, all of a sudden anybody with a little bit of knowledge could suddenly market a product directly to literally millions, literally billions, of people by sending mass amounts of email. And so that opened the door for somebody who wanted to market sex supplements to be able to do so 10,000 times as effectively and as cheaply as they could have done before the internet took off. 

Alex: Erb took tremendous advantage of the way the internet suddenly allowed you to do a lot of marketing, a lot of advertisement, very cheaply. He pioneered spam. But I want to just point out that before the internet, maybe you could get The Village Voice to run an ad for Stiff Nights, but I don’t think you were going to get very many family newspapers or television stations to accept an ad for a product like that. But on the internet, by the late 1990s or early 2000s, he can reach everyone who had an email address.

Matt: That’s right. The barriers were down, the gateways were open, and God knew what sort of stuff would spew forth into that new digital realm. Then you have this very smart, very driven, ambitious young tech-adjacent guy named Erb Avore, who comes in with a product and a dream that he could make zillions of dollars while making millions of men stiff for hours in the bedroom.

Laura: Before we get into his personal odyssey, I just want to ask, is there a partisan politics element in play here? Because you talked about regulation loosening up, we talked about the internet, and that kind of implies that barriers were simply removed and then this flourishes. But in the piece you talk about the Republican Party’s role in enabling this kind of industry to spring up. 

Matt: A lot of conservative men, or conservative people in general, don’t trust the medical establishment. And so they are looking for alternatives to a greater extent than perhaps the more left-wing Democratic progressive position, which is that medical science might be flawed but is perhaps the best chance to get decent medical treatment. 

Laura: How much do Republican politicians themselves actually come into the story?

Matt: You had a lot of members of the Republican base who had an appetite for a medical product that doesn’t bring you into your traditional hospital. You had people like Erb who were marketing products through emails. And now, all of a sudden, here come these Republicans in the early 2000s who are building a new sort of political campaign, one that relies in part on building big email lists. And so it doesn’t take a genius to realize that all of these factors might come together very nicely and give those candidates an opportunity to make a couple bucks, or a couple of hundred thousand bucks, by selling their voters and their email campaign supporter lists to the people who were selling these products. And in fact, that’s exactly what happened.

Laura: Who actually did that?

Matt: There’s Alan Keyes. Herman Cain famously sold his email lists so that all of his followers were getting promotions for Testo-Max. 

Laura: Nice.

Matt: Mike Huckabee had some sort of heart disease cure type thing. It’s become a bit of a de facto component of the successful campaign. 

Laura: So take us back to the beginning. Who is this guy? Where does he start out, and how do we get onto this journey?

Matt: Erb starts off as very much an everyman. He’s the put-upon high school outcast who does not feel a lot of love or connection with his peers, really wants to reinvent himself, and became this vegan activist who learned some skills and capitalized on his natural business acumen to start a bunch of companies. He became one of the most prolific spammers in the world. He was on the ROKSO, a register of known spammers, the top 200 spammers in the world. He was sending literally billions of emails to consumers for various products. And he also spun off into some other business concerns—he would do debt collection, digital marketing. And at the time the Wild West of the internet was attracting these kinds of young, ambitious guys. It was kind of a Silicon Valley vibe blended with Wolves of Wall Street.

Alex: What I find really interesting in your story is that Erb set out to do exactly what his products say they’re supposed to do. You describe a globe-hopping search for an herb that will actually work to enhance male sexual performance. 

Matt: He was a true believer, and he went everywhere, man. He went to the Philippines, he went to Africa, he went to India, he went to Thailand. And everywhere that he traveled, he was always looking for that herb or blend of herbs or extract or concoction that would do this thing.

Alex: At one point he thinks he found it. 

Matt: That’s right. He gets a package from an associate of his who knows how much Erb cares about this quest. It’s got some supplements in it, and he gives those supplements out to some people who are working for him at a debt collection office in India, and lo and behold, within a couple of hours, all these guys are giggling behind their desks, making knowing eye contact, refusing to stand up. 

Laura: So this is the moment when he realizes that he may have had a breakthrough. 

Matt: He immediately flew back to the United States from India and, with a very small amount of seed money, I think he said something like $10,000, he started packaging and marketing this product, which was being purchased from a supplier in China, sent to an established supplements packager in Utah, who would put the ingredients into pills and the pills into bottles. And then they would go on to Erb, who lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Erb would use that office as a hub to get Stiff Nights out to every distributor that he could think of.

Alex: He doesn’t put what he thinks is the magic ingredient on the bottle. He had a euphemistic or fake name for it.

Matt: The scientific name I am not going to attempt to pronounce. But it’s got the initials OT. It’s a sort of fern—an adder’s tongue fern. And he didn’t want competitors to find out that that was his secret ingredient. So he gave it another name, golden spear grass extract, which was, as far as I can tell, a little bit of nonsense. And that is actually another reminder that the herbal supplement industry is not all that well regulated, because he could call it whatever he wanted, and had an incentive to do that because he couldn’t patent it. You’re not allowed to patent any herbal ingredient. 

Laura: So he has this ingredient. He’s selling it, calling it Stiff Nights, and it’s selling pretty well. What goes wrong?

Matt: First of all, a lot of things go right, because a lot of guys who had been cycling hopelessly through a bunch of similar-sounding products without having a lot of impact on their sex life suddenly sort of tell each other, “Oh my God, this is the best product ever.”

Alex: You describe him being approached by adoring fans at a conference, right? 

Matt: He’d go to the trade shows, and his booth was like the booth. He said people would come up and they would just shake his hand, and they would be crying because they would be so happy that his product had given them the sorts of erections that they wanted. And Erb, who, when he was younger, suffered from crushing lack of confidence, he was really into that idea that he was helping other men gain confidence. So he would cry with them. You would have these two men crying together over a hard-on. 

So Erb is on a high buying up all sorts of distress properties to become a real estate guy, buying the private plane, and then, one day the FDA comes knocking. 

Alex: After the break, we’ll find out what happened when the FDA tried to shut down Stiff Nights. 


Laura: Before the break, Matt was telling us about Erb’s success. We stopped right at the very suspenseful moment: the FDA raid. 

Alex: What did the FDA want? They were just like, “Hey, congrats—congrats on all your success with Stiff Nights”? 

Matt: It turned out that Stiff Nights, as far as the FDA could determine, had a drug analog in it. A drug analog is something that is essentially the same as a patented designer drug, but it’s been tweaked on a molecular level that doesn’t really change the impact but allows you to circumvent patent violations. So he didn’t have sildenafil, which is the active drug in Viagra, but he had some analog of sildenafil in his product. And that is why it was functioning as well as Viagra—because, for all intents and purposes, it was Viagra. 

Alex: He had just been selling something that was the drug in every important sense.

Laura: So the FDA came knocking. Was that a surprise? 

Matt: He knew the FDA had been asking him a lot of tough questions, but he had a reason to think that his product was actually pure. And the reason is that there were a lot of counterfeiters who were out there producing fake Stiff Nights.

Laura: Even though this was Erb’s dream, he wasn’t the only person selling male sexual enhancement supplements, and he wasn’t even the only person selling Stiff Nights. 

Alex: That’s right. There were bootleggers selling counterfeit versions of Erb’s completely unregulated sexual enhancement supplement.

Matt: And they were virtually identical. So Erb says that he was under the impression that the FDA was very widely testing counterfeit Stiff Nights, finding this drug in it, and then wanted to blame him. And Erb had no problem at all convincing himself that this was the case, because he felt like the FDA was persecuting him because he was providing this all-natural alternative. He thought it was quite natural that big pharma should use the FDA as a tool to come and stomp him out.

Laura: I mean, he thought he was in the right, but this also did not come out of nowhere. This was always a possibility. 

Matt: My impression is that Erb had legitimately deluded himself. He should have seen the warning signs, but he was so deeply married to his dream that he just did not. He turned a blind eye to them. 

Laura: If you get raided by the FDA, what happens next?

Matt: Erb quit. Even though he felt like the FDA was wrong, he withdrew from the business. 

Laura: So he didn’t go to jail, but there were people he worked with who faced more severe consequences?

Matt: Yes, the FDA and federal agents did a very thorough investigation. I’m not privy to all the ins and outs of that investigation, but I do think that it’s important to note that Erb was not charged with any crimes. They took his product, and they told them not to sell it anymore, but they didn’t seem to have the proof they would have needed in order to conclude that he was an active conspirator in this. But his supplier, a guy named Kelly Dean, he was charged with various counts related to the Stiff Nights empire and Stiff Nights operation. And he actually went to prison. He spent somewhere between two and four years there and was released not all that long ago.

Alex: He’s the one who helped source this miracle ingredient, right? 

Matt: He had the contact with the supplier from China, so he was an integral part of the chain. He apparently knew exactly what he was doing in a way that Erb did not. 

Alex: Right. Erb was just importing God knows what from China, assuming it was exactly the natural ingredient it said it was, and selling it to billions of people. That was all he was doing.

Matt: You and me, we might try to vet that product a little bit more. But, for whatever reason, Erb did not. 

Laura: This brings us back to the packages that Alex was talking about that are available at the bodega. If the FDA came in, and they cleaned all of this up, why can you still buy Stiff Nights and all of its various competitors to this day?

Matt: The answer is that you shouldn’t be able to, but you can anyway. Basically, all of those counterfeiters who continue to sell knockoff versions of Stiff Nights after Erb left the stage, they are still out there, and they’re in such massive numbers, under so many different shell companies and individuals and different products and names and brands that the FDA is just completely overwhelmed. The FDA is only screening something like 0.16 percent of packages that they suspect of having illegal drugs in them coming into the United States at international mail distribution centers. They don’t have the people. They don’t have the time for this. It’s just an insane game of whack-a-mole that the government has all but lost.

Alex: When we were talking about this story, Laura, what was the surprising thing you learned? 

Laura: I mean, I’ve seen supplements of all kinds over the years, and my main suspicion of them has been, well, you’ll buy this elderberry infusion and it costs $25, and nothing happens. It doesn’t cure your cold. It doesn’t help you go to sleep at night. It’s just a con. What surprised me about this was, oh, you could buy this enhancement thing and it really works.

Alex: Because it was just the drug!

Laura: That’s kind of more frightening.

Matt: I would say that was a learning moment for myself as well, Laura. It really is shocking that what protects a lot of the manufacturers is that their product, at the very least, does no harm. And on various fronts, it arguably does quite a bit of good. But there are harmful products out there, and not having any window into which of the ones are good and which are bad, it’s a little like playing Russian roulette. 

Alex: So having established that a lot of these things are unregulated, dangerous, untested, you might be getting a drug analog, you don’t know what’s in it, and meanwhile, the thing that you want, we have various legal and regulated medications that do it—why would you go to the gas station instead of getting a Cialis prescription? 

Matt: I would lay the blame at the feet of the system itself. Who among us is happy with our medical care system? We look at the prices, and it’s outrageous. We look at the opportunities for political corruption of entities like the FDA and certainly of Congress by Big Pharma and all the medical suppliers, and the system is just rife with abuse and potential abuse. 

Alex: If you’re uninsured, what’s the out-of-pocket cost for buying these unregulated supplements versus going to your doctor and getting a prescription for something? 

Matt: Even though the supplement makers are making cash hand over fist, it’s an order of magnitude cheaper, I would think. You buy a pack of fake Stiff Nights for 80 or 90 bucks, and you go to your doctor and ultimately that same volume of product from Viagra is going to be 300, 400 bucks. 

Laura: There’s a nice coda to your piece where Erb is offered the chance to go straight and start selling Viagra, to use his brilliant digital marketing skills to make money in that area. And he refuses on principle. 

Matt: Yeah, he says he’s not a charlatan. He’s not going to sell drugs, not knowingly. He was very, very adamant, and almost insulted, that someone would suggest that he should sell Viagra. 

Alex: Is Erb still on his quest for the all-natural male enhancement? 

Matt: Oh, he is, he is. Erb has realized that he misses Stiff Nights. He misses that feeling that he was helping a lot of men and making a lot of money. So he’s out there, trying different combinations of plants trying to find one that works. 

He says that he did find one once upon a day. He only had a little bit of it, and it gave him an erection for three days, and now he can’t find it again. That memory is driving his quest and his hope that he really is going to be able to come up with the all-natural product that will knock Viagra off of its lofty perch. 

Alex: Well, I’m almost rooting for him.

Laura: The dream of the return of Stiff Nights may remain elusive for the moment. But I do think that this story has taught us a lot about the medical system in this country and a frightening lack of regulation.

Alex: Matt, thank you so much for returning to the show. It’s always a pleasure.

Matt: I had so much fun. You guys always ask the best questions. 

Laura: Matt Hongoltz-Hetling is the author of A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear. You can listen to our previous episode with him talking about his book. It’s Episode 19. 

Alex: And you can read his article, “The Rise and Fall of an Herbal Viagra Scammer,” in The New Republic.