Joe Zawacki eyed about 50 audience members and, like a preacher showing the way to the promised land, raised his hand toward an imagined horizon beyond the walls of Centennial Hall.
He was in Juneau, he said Tuesday night, because he wanted to help people stop smoking through hypnosis.
"You'll excuse my lack of modesty," Zawacki said as he gave a wink toward the front row. "But I'm really good at it."
Gorayeb Seminars Inc. of Rockaway, N.J., the company for which Zawacki works, says it has been sending representatives to Anchorage and Fairbanks since 1994 and to Juneau for the past three years to perform "hypnosis seminars." Its advertisements claim the seminars, which cost $49.95, will help people quit smoking or lose weight.
The Federal Trade Commission warns that Alaskans might not be getting what they paid for.
"They've got problems, Gorayeb's got problems. I would tell people to be wary, unless they don't mind parting with 50 bucks," said Matt Daynard, senior attorney with the Division of Ad Practices of the FTC.
In 1994 , The Federal Trade Commission investigated Gorayeb Seminars, Inc for running advertisements that claimed participants would stop smoking permanently. After the investigation, Gorayeb agreed to stop running those types of ads. Below are some claims from the advertisement for last Tuesday's seminar at Centennial Hall:
A headline that read: "STOP SMOKING with HYPNOSIS"
A claim that seminar attendees "can stop smoking tonight with no anxiety, no irritability, and no weight gain."
A claim that "... the hypnosis is designed so you will leave this seminar as a non-smoker."
A claim that "This program is designed so you will stop smoking, not just cut down, but stop smoking completely" with a "110% guarantee."
The FTC is investigating whether Gorayeb violated its agreement by running this smoking seminar ad and a similar ad for a recent weight loss seminar.
The FTC investigated Gorayeb in 1994 for falsely advertising that its hypnosis program, facilitated in various locations around the country by company founder Ronald Gorayeb, could make people lose weight and stop smoking permanently.
The agency warned Gorayeb to change its ads because there was no scientific evidence its claims were true. Gorayeb agreed to comply without admitting guilt. Ads that ran in the Empire for recent weight-loss and smoking-cessation seminars had language very similar to those the FTC investigated.
"It looks like (they) toned it down a bit, but there are still problems," Daynard said after seeing copies of the Juneau ads.
Gorayeb weight-loss seminars also were the subject of an NBC "Dateline" program in 1997. "Dateline" interviewed people who had tried the Gorayeb program, including the vitamins and hypnosis tapes sold at the seminars, without success. "Dateline" also reported the attorneys general in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Washington and Oregon have made Gorayeb agree to change its advertising. Gorayeb signed the statements but did not admit to false advertising. Cynthia Drinkwater with the Alaska Attorney General's office is aware of the Gorayeb seminars but declined to say whether they are being investigated.
A new possible concern for Daynard was that the content of the seminar is not limited to hypnosis, as the ads imply. In the session secretly videotaped by "Dateline" and in the Juneau session, the seminar leader pushed behavior-modification techniques and heavily promoted vitamin supplements, available only from the Gorayeb hypnotherapist, as a means to stop smoking.
The Federal Trade Commission and the Alaska attorney general's office investigate unfair and deceptive business practices. Consumer complaints often are the basis of investigations. To file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, call its consumer complaint line: 1-888-FTC-HELP. To file a complaint with the attorney general, visit www.law.state.ak.us/consumer/.
The FTC enforcement department is investigating whether Gorayeb has broken its agreement not to advertise falsely. The FTC also may investigate whether the content of the seminars corresponds with what is advertised and whether claims made in the seminars are true, Daynard said. Investigations are fueled by complaints, and so far Alaskans have not complained about the seminars, he said.
When contacted in New Jersey by phone, Jerry Thornton, who runs Gorayeb Seminars Inc., told the Empire a study shows 60 percent of people who attended the hypnosis seminars quit smoking.
"It only works for people who are open to it," he said.
When asked if he thought the current ads violated the company's agreement with the FTC, Thornton refused to comment and hung up.
The study Thornton referred to was done on contract by psychology professor Michael Murphy at Indiana State University. It surveyed people who participated in the smoking-cessation seminars only. Though he couldn't remember how many people responded, Murphy said about half of them were not smoking six months after they attended a seminar.
"There was no control group, simply enrollees," he said of his study.
According to Daynard, without a control group there is no way to say the seminar was what caused people to quit smoking. Thornton did not point to any evidence to substantiate the claims made in the weight-loss ads.
On its weight-loss Web site, Gorayeb claims its hypnosis technique first was recognized by the American Medical Association in 1959. Standards for the AMA are revised every 10 years. Currently, there is no policy at the AMA regarding the efficacy of hypnosis. When asked to defend the company's claims, Thornton said all questions had to be submitted in writing, and that he preferred not to be contacted again by phone.
At Centennial Hall, Zawacki portrayed himself as a successful businessman from humble roots, propelled to anti-smoking activism by the death of his wife from lung cancer.
"I come from a working-class background, my father drove trucks, uh, he was a milkman, my mother cleaned houses," he said. "You see an Ethan Allen store in your travels, chances are I opened it."
Kelly Maicon, spokeswoman for Ethan Allen, said the furniture store chain had no affiliation with Zawacki.
"We've never heard of Joe Zawacki, as far as our records show, and they go back pretty far," she said.
"How much do you think you spend on smoking?" Zawacki asked Tuesday's audience at Centennial Hall. "The reason I am doing this is because I want to put money in your pocket."
As he continued, Zawacki explained that being under hypnosis is like a driver being distracted or preoccupied and missing a turn. Though audience members would be conscious, the technique he was using was very powerful, he said.
"Women give birth under this type of hypnosis without any pain," he said. "A few times a week people come up to me after the seminar in tears because all their pain, arthritis or what have you, is gone."
During the three-hour seminar Zawacki took the group through two "hypnosis sessions" in which he lowered the lights, played New Age music and read a guided visualization script from a podium.
"You will go into a deep, deep sleep," he repeated to audience members, who had been instructed to close their eyes. After a few minutes of counting backward, he began repeating affirmations about staying with "the program" and using hypnosis tapes. The tapes were on sale, at what he said was a "discounted" price, after the seminar.
Zawacki emphasized that if people wanted to quit smoking, they not only had to undergo group hypnosis, but to "commit to the program," which included commonly known techniques for smoking cessation such as brushing teeth after meals, exercising and avoiding caffeine and sugar.
"I'll tell you a secret. You know how I quit smoking?" Zawacki said conspiratorially. "Jabbing my gum with a toothpick every time I wanted to light up."
The most important thing needed to be successful at quitting smoking, Zawacki stressed repeatedly, was taking dietary supplements. He provided a list of supplements in the back of the program booklet, then talked about the price of buying the vitamins individually, saying that buying in bulk would save money.
Finally, he suggested the audience turn to the place in the booklet where there were "discounted" prices on "Vitapak" and other products that contained the vitamins and enzymes he had discussed. He also stressed the supplements he was selling could be bought anywhere, mentioning the nutritional supplement chain GNC at least 10 times in the course of the seminar.
"You can do this easy or you can do this hard, folks. ... I'm not in the pill business, I'm not in the business of selling pills. I don't care if you buy this tonight because you do nothing for me and my children if you do. Go to your GNC and look for this stuff," he said.
Vitapak was billed as a "Stop Smoking Vitamin Power Pack" that "reconstructs damaged nerve endings and lung tissue." The nutrition information provided said it contains most of the same ingredients as a multivitamin, along with some herbs and antioxidants. Zawacki asked seminar participants to circle the names of two special ingredients he said made the vitamin effective in helping people quit smoking, Biotin, a B-complex vitamin that helps with digestion, and N-Acetylcystine, a compound sold at health food stores as an expectorant.
A basic multivitamin at Fred Meyer costs about $15 for a two-month supply. A one-month supply of Vitapak costs $24.95 - "discounted" from $49.95 - at the seminar. Also recommended by Zawacki were the "hypnosis stop smoking reinforcement aides," "Nicazan," "Isotrim-Cx" and "Respir-Clear" along with hypnotism tapes sold in packages that cost up to $225.
Nicazan, advertised "for stress and craving relief," contains Kava, a supplement the FDA warned in March can be harmful to the liver if taken in large doses.
Isotrim-Cx, marketed as "craving control for the new non-smoker," touts the ingredient "SuperCitrimax," made and marketed as a weight-loss aid by InterHealth in California. InterHealth spokesperson Cindy Railing said the company controls who sells SuperCitrimax and monitors how it is marketed. The company is not familiar with Gorayeb, she said.
"We are concerned. Gorayeb is not a customer of ours at all. We certainly do not claim that SuperCitrimax has anything to do with smoking control," Railing told the Empire.
At the end of the seminar, more than a dozen people lined up to purchase the products. One man asked Zawacki what he thought of the smoking patch.
"The patch doesn't work. If you were an alcoholic would you put alcohol in you body to quit drinking? Definitely get the Respir-Clear," Zawacki said.
Other seminar attendees visited GNC in the Nugget Mall, but weren't able to find the products, according to store manager Pat DeAlexandro. The vitamin supplements, made by "Vitapak Nutritional Products," generally are not available at GNC, according to the chain's spokesman, Matthew Conroy. Neither are "Nicazan," "Isotrim-Cx" and "Respir-Clear," despite Zawacki's assertions.
There is no Web site for Vitapak Nutritional Products. The 800 number for Vitapak Nutritional Products is disconnected. Thornton of Gorayeb Seminars suggested the number does not work when called from Alaska.
"They're ours, you get them from us, from our company," Thornton said when asked how the drugs could be purchased outside of the seminar. He offered to transfer an Empire call to the drug department, but then said all the employees were at lunch and couldn't be reached for comment.
The FDA does not test dietary supplements, although it does prohibit labels from making an unsubstantiated claim.
"The manufacturer is responsible for the safety and proper labeling of the supplements," said Ruth Welch, press officer at the FDA. "What we tell people about supplements is to inform their regular health-care provider."