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The Rise and Fall of an Herbal Viagra Scammer

The Rise and Fall of an Herbal Viagra Scammer
If you are ever so lucky as to find yourself talking to Erb Avore, your first question would likely be whether that is, in fact, his real name. It is. Your second question could be—or should be—about his proprietary herbal supplement, legendary for its ability to boost erections. And your third question could be almost…

If you are ever so lucky as to find yourself talking to Erb Avore, your first question would likely be whether that is, in fact, his real name. It is. Your second question could be—or should be—about his proprietary herbal supplement, legendary for its ability to boost erections. And your third question could be almost anything: What was it like when the Food and Drug Administration raided his home? Why did he show up to that Ethiopian restaurant on a cold January day wearing slippers? Does he believe, deep down, that he’s responsible for the fate of the Missouri man who tried to buy Erb’s supplement and wound up dead? (The answers are, “Bad,” “Because I don’t like tight shoes,” and “No.” More about that later.)

After months of failed efforts to land an interview with Erb, I was surprised when my phone rang this April and I heard his voice for the first time. He was calling from a different continent; the connection was poor, but his energy and easy charm were apparent. As we talked, I came to see him as a rare blend of contradictions. At 49, Erb is at once a bro and a vegan, an environmentalist and a fervent capitalist. He has a libertarian distrust of the government and a spiritual desire to lift up his fellow man. He chases pagan myths but has found Jesus. He is a sophisticated world traveler and a savvy internet marketer who can be hopelessly, charmingly naïve. Erb loves his friends, and tries to love his enemies. And he has enemies.

“I have nothing to hide.” That was practically the first thing Erb said to me. I took it as an invitation to ask him the most awkward questions I could think of, and found him indeed unflappable. (His penis, he answered solemnly, is in fine working order.) I had tracked Erb down because he helped pioneer a marketing juggernaut that preys on fragile male egos, often operates outside the law, and, despite becoming more dangerous, is being increasingly embraced by a Republican Party that feeds on distrust of the medical establishment. But Erb Avore’s relationship with the poorly regulated and frequently shady dietary supplement industry is complicated, to say the least.


To fully appreciate the changes that Erb wrought in the supplement world, we need to first visit a time and place untainted by the internet: 1986, when a blond and bespectacled boy named Chad Erb began high school in the crushingly normal city of Tecumseh, Michigan, one of at least three manufacturing-heavy Midwestern communities that claimed the dubious title of “Refrigeration Capital of the World.”

The Tecumseh High experience was not kind to Erb. In his freshman yearbook, his smiling headshot was printed next to the unflatteringly incorrect name of Chad Erd. The error was just one reminder of a social isolation that was as palpable as the school steps he mounted each day, yet as difficult to grasp as his accounting lessons—just one of several areas in which he struggled academically. All he could suss out was that his brain somehow worked differently than the other kids’. He sensed that they didn’t like him.

Erb’s only joy lay in business class. There, among the weighty electric typewriters and his bored peers, he was transfixed by lessons about finance: the perils of credit, the power of investment, the idea that a canny operator could buy widgets for a little bit of money and sell them for a lot. After graduating, he embraced business partly as a way of rejecting his tormenting lack of confidence; in college in New Mexico, 1,500 miles away, he reinvented himself as a vegan and a brash nonconformist, and dove into the emerging field of business computing.

After college and a legal name change, Erb Avore dabbled in entrepreneurial efforts in the burgeoning tech industry: debt collection, digital marketing, spamming. Now a vegan activist, he became keenly interested in the idea that people could augment their health without resorting to dangerous synthetic pharmaceuticals. In 2000, an article about a particular natural remedy sparked a fascination, which became a hobby, which became an all-consuming quest. The quest became a pathway to wealth, and, ultimately, a business empire founded on a criminal act.

Erb Avore’s dream was to make sex better. With herbs.


Erb’s newfound passion to improve men’s potency was hardly unique. The surviving records of virtually every ancient civilization demonstrate an abiding interest in erectile dysfunction. Their outlandish theories about its causes and cures may even be blamed for sowing a distrust of medical practitioners that persists to this day. Five thousand years ago, the possibly mythical ancient Chinese emperor Shen Nung taught that evocatively shaped ginseng could cure erectile dysfunction. (Supposedly, he discovered this by putting plants into his transparent belly and watching the effects.) Four thousand years ago, in Mesopotamia, men tried to improve their sexual performance by drinking jars of rooftop-aged water and the dried corpses of “ready to mate” bats. The ancient Greeks, 2,500 years ago, wisely associated impotence with obesity and advanced age; less wisely, they associated it with horse riding, cold foods, hot baths, sitting on a tomb, and displeasing the gods. To cure the problem, some men simply ate nuts, drank the water of boiled wild asparagus, or wore amulets of crocodile molars; others ate dried horse testicles, applied mustard to their anuses, and drank the urine of recently mated bulls.

And so it went. Romans gulped the semen of hawks and eagles; a thirteenth-century “doctor of the church” told followers to down roasted wolf genitals; and eighteenth-century English medicine men peddled miracle elixirs of spices and dreck that were far more dangerous than effective.

After the Age of Enlightenment liberated the medical profession from rank superstition, treatments of erectile dysfunction got less absurd—sort of. Europe’s first generation of science-driven doctors used new, almost Frankensteinian methods: One Frenchman extracted fluids from the testicles of dogs and guinea pigs and injected them into his own skin to restore youthful vigor; another unveiled the world’s first primitive penis pump, a hand-cranked vacuum he called the “congestor”; an American revitalized genitals by running an electric current through them. In the flapper era, the Russian doctor Serge Voronoff grafted the testicles of executed criminals and great apes on to the testicles of the functionally impotent. During the Great Depression, inventors fashioned the first penile implants out of rib cartilage and bone. In the 1950s and 1960s, they turned to acrylic and silicone, sometimes employing stiff wire rods that could be bent at the whim of the owner, and engineered subcutaneous fluid exchanges that allowed users to inflate themselves with a James Bond–style pumping of the lower pelvic area or scrotum.

The solutions that were widely available were ineffective; the solutions that were effective were expensive, carried surgical risks, and had embarrassing downsides. After thousands of years of failed treatments, the men of the world needed—or at least demanded—something that would give them the halcyon stiffies they remembered from their youths. That’s when Erb Avore picked up the football, and cast his eyes upon the horizon.


At first, the idea of an herbal dick stiffener was almost a daydream, a young man’s fantasy about unlocking erotic secrets. Over time, Erb’s growing marketing experience helped him appreciate that the right product could be lucrative. But the quest proved maddeningly difficult. Consider the humble perennial herb Eriosema kraussianum, common on rocky grassland areas in Southeastern Africa and described without irony by the South African National Biodiversity Institute as “erect, fairly small,” and “tufted.” For centuries, Zulu men used E. kraussianum to give themselves erections. But did they use the roots? The leaves? Was the plant harvested at a particular stage of development? Was it eaten, applied to the skin, used to prepare hot milk infusions? Was it ingested by itself, or in concert with some other local food or practice?

That was a single candidate.

In Africa alone, literally thousands of plants have been used to treat impotence, and Africa is but one of several continent-size medicinal plant storehouses. Different indigenous peoples used Mongolian astragalus root, the beanlike fruit of Japan’s pagoda trees, extract of Indonesian Eurycoma longifolia, or the Chinese mushroom Ganoderma lucidum.

Erb traveled through remote bamboo villages in Thailand and the lush islands of the Philippines, spurred on by tantalizing myths: a magic root that instantly doubled a man’s length; a leaf that allowed him to please six women in one night. Once, when Erb found a promising candidate, he reached out to Kelly Dean Harvey, a prominent figure in Utah’s multibillion-dollar supplement industry. Harvey was about the last person you might expect to get into sex supplements—he was a proud Mormon with four kids—but he nevertheless helped Erb package the product into bottles. When sales flagged, Erb concluded that he’d been misled, in his own testing of the product, by a placebo-inspired boner, and he stopped production.

But he didn’t give up. He ran laboratory analyses, blended ingredients into his own formulations, tried formulations pressed on him by people who swore they would work.

Nothing actually, definitively, pitched a tent.


One day, Erb noticed that the debt collector he had hired was not collecting debt. In fact, Erb saw, the guy wasn’t even pretending to work. He was sitting at his desk, giggling and exchanging knowing looks with the man at the neighboring desk, who was also giggling. Erb looked around the cramped, hot office, redolent with the odors of the local Mumbai cuisine. The whole damn staff—his staff!—of collectors was giggling, hunched in slightly odd positions and refusing to get up from their desks. When Erb realized what was going on, he beamed. He’d just given the entire office hard-ons.

It was 2007, and India was undergoing its own form of masculine panic under Pratibha Patil, the country’s first female president. Erb had offered the staff some herbal samples he’d received from Harvey, now CEO and part-owner of a Utah manufacturer called Novacare. Erb said Harvey told him that the samples were derived from Ophioglossum thermale, one of dozens of species of tropical “adder’s-tongue” ferns whose many biological secrets are still being unlocked by the world’s botanists.

When Erb saw the impact of OT on the debt collectors, he was filled with hope. “I knew I had something that worked,” he said. “I left India and flew back to the U.S. to figure out how to market this amazing herbal pill.” (Verbally, Erb distinguishes herb and herbal from his name by pronouncing the H.)

Erb didn’t fully appreciate how perfectly three recent historical events had set the stage for him. The first came in 1994, when the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act sailed through Congress with bipartisan support. Before 1994, sex enhancement supplements, vitamins, minerals, muscle-building steroids, plants, and hormones all occupied a gray zone under federal law. Millions of people were consuming the substances to improve their health, but they didn’t contain the synthetic compounds of federally regulated pharmaceuticals. So what were they?

Since the 1970s, the Food and Drug Administration had considered them “food additives.” By this definition, manufacturers had to prove that they were safe for consumption before selling them to the public. But the health food industry lobbyists who helped craft the new regulations had a different answer: Their products were food, not food additives or drugs. This definition shifted the burden of proof to the FDA, which now had to identify and build a case against any new ingredient it suspected of being dangerous. The change in the law made it much easier for people like Erb to bring products to market (and indeed, since passage of the 1994 act, the number of supplements has grown from 4,000 individual products to 80,000 today).

The second development came in 1998, when Pfizer released Viagra, the first erectile dysfunction treatment that was effective, affordable, easy to administer, and relatively safe (a low risk of heart problems was associated with the drug’s effects on blood pressure). Breathless media reports primed the public to accept that pills were an effective way to enhance bedroom experiences.

The third development was a new homegrown spam industry that sprang up in the 1990s and instantly outpaced the ability of regulators to rein in its worst excesses. For all its seediness, digital marketing was a low-cost, effective advertising vector that gave the garage entrepreneur a chance to compete with massive international corporations. Did Erb know how to use this medium? Let’s put it this way: At one point, the Register of Known Spam Operations estimated that 90 percent of Europe’s and North America’s spam came from just 200 operators. One of these was Erb Avore. During a court proceeding, he reckoned that he’d helped send eight billion spam emails relevant to the case at hand.

Erb’s spam expertise, combined with his keen interest in herbal supplements, made him exactly the right guy to bring Ophioglossum thermale to the people. Harvey got it from a Wesley Chapel, Florida, resident who had connections to Rizhao Sunan Trading Co. in Shandong, China; they worked out a business model in which Harvey would pay the supplier $1,350 per kilogram, and blend the OT with other components to make capsules. Erb would buy batches from Harvey at about 75 cents a pill, package them, and get them out to distributors, retailers, and consumers. The two would start small—whatever Erb could sell.

Using $10,000 in seed money, Erb rented office space in Grand Rapids, Michigan; created and registered a corporate entity, Impulsaria, in Nevada; and hired a couple of people to handle sales, manage the inventory, and collect from distributors. He also filed trademarks on possible brand names, including “Aziffa” (“never been stiffa,” went the marketing), “Feel 18 Again,” and, critically, “Stiff Nights.” The first few distributors of Stiff Nights got gorgeous blister packs of one or two red capsules set into a slick, black cardboard backing, with a photo-realistic image of a lightning bolt next to the slogan “Regain the Thunder.” The logo was not subtle: The second S featured an impossibly long bottom stroke that ran the entire length of the word nights.

The packaging boasted “all natural” ingredients, including a variety of exotic plants with reputations for bettering sex, and common ingredients like lemon peel and spinach. It made no mention of OT, the powerhouse ingredient from China. That’s because there was a catch. Harvey had asked Flora Research Laboratories, an Oregon lab, to analyze the OT. It didn’t contain sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, but it did contain a substance that shared characteristics with a synthetic sildenafil analogue. This was worrisome: If OT contained a synthetic pharmaceutical, then it wasn’t truly all natural, which meant that it couldn’t be sold.

Harvey assured Erb that the lab was making an assumption about the unknown element being a drug analogue. “I certainly thought the mystery substance was herbal,” Erb said. “I wouldn’t have any other reason to think otherwise. Kelly Harvey is a good man, and I could never ever imagine him lying to me.” The pair agreed that demonstrating negative lab tests for the known pharmaceuticals in Viagra and Cialis would reassure potential customers.

The lengthy ingredient list on the back of those Stiff Nights packets referred to OT by an alias, Golden Spear Grass Extract, to stop others from reproducing the formula (herbal ingredients can’t be patented). Erb was also mindful of federal laws that prevent the marketing of supplements as cures for erectile dysfunction or any other medical condition. “It was a men’s sexual booster product,” he said. “Instead of 30 minutes, you could go for three hours, if you had the stamina. What man wouldn’t want to be able to do that?”

The important thing was that after seven years, he, Erb Avore, had an all-herbal (probably) product that dramatically improved men’s erections. He plowed ahead, focusing on distributors and direct retail. Packets of Stiff Nights began to appear in convenience stores, health food stores, liquor stores, supermarkets, and other retail outlets. Only one question remained: Would anyone buy it?


Though it lacks the showstopping drama of the miracle of birth, an erection is still a pretty neat party trick. Sexual stimulation—merely the thought of sex—can trigger the release of nitric oxide in the nerves, which boosts an enzyme, which spews out an organic molecule, which blocks some calcium channels; the lack of calcium relaxes smooth muscles that, finally, allow blood to flood the area. The process is so clearly vital for reproduction that one might think nature would abhor impotence. But from an evolutionary perspective, sperm is cheap, and reproduction is a young man’s game. An erection’s vitality can be sapped by diabetes, obesity, alcohol use, tobacco use, hypertension, and, most commonly, cardiovascular disease, which strikes at the literal heart of the blood-pumping system on which a healthy erection relies. In fact, the Massachusetts Male Aging Study found that, among men aged 40 to 70 years, 52 percent—a majority!—had some level of erectile dysfunction.

By one theory, the 1998 release of Viagra, followed by Cialis and Levitra, should have obviated the need for alternative penis products. But instead, a paradox emerged. Doctors had a solution in hand—yet a growing army of men took their erection issues elsewhere. In fact, a growing army of Americans were taking all their medical issues elsewhere.

It comes down to a matter of trust. America’s labyrinthine health care system labors beneath a widespread belief that regulatory agencies like the FDA are hopelessly corrupted by the pharmaceuticals industry. Erb shares this belief. He points to the “revolving door” that sees former FDA officials accepting high-paying jobs from the drug companies they had once regulated. “It’s completely unethical,” he said. “It’s completely legal corruption.”

And nonprofit watchdogs agree there is ample cause for concern: Drug companies fund their own review process through legally mandated user fees, and actively lobby politicians to craft legislation that enhances their profits and influence. In such a bad system, even a good product like Viagra becomes a source of grievance. One rampant problem is irrational pricing. Between 2012 and 2017, for no discernible reason, the typical cost of a one-month supply of Viagra rose from $127 to $370, the biggest spike among 49 top-selling drugs whose prices were tracked in a 2019 Scripps Research study. Big Pharma often claims high drug prices are needed to subsidize ongoing research and drug access for impoverished nations, but the assertions contrast sharply with a study showing that 35 pharmaceutical companies collected $11.5 trillion between 2000 and 2018, resulting in truly gross profits of $8.6 trillion.

Is that bad? Yes, obviously. The question is how to make both Big Pharma and the FDA serve the public interest. The 2015 Prescription Drug Affordability Act, sponsored by Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, aimed to get tough on the industry with several price-dampening mechanisms: transparent price-setting procedures, more government negotiation of drug costs, paths to import drugs from cheaper Canadian markets, and speeding the release of inexpensive, generic drug equivalents. But the bill died in Congress.

Patient advocacy groups routinely beg the public for help to push such reforms through the legislature. Instead, the actual public reaction is triggering a massive, though largely invisible, transformation of how America’s health care works. Millions of individuals are responding to real and perceived flaws in the medical establishment by simply abandoning it.

A 2020 survey found that 105 million Americans—roughly a third of the country—opted out of all professional medical care during the previous year. These people are not opting out of health care, mind you—just professional health care. They are defecting, in massive numbers, to forms of medicine governed by less regulation, supported by less science, and conducted with less transparency. By 2027, analysts predict, the global alternative medicine market will be worth $296.3 billion.

That money fuels a hidden world of treatment, where oddball remedies are dispensed by alternative practitioners or self-administered in the patient’s own bedroom—a world just waiting for a product like Stiff Nights.


In July 2008, Harvey emailed Erb an article describing a federal bust of $74,000 worth of tablets from SEI Pharmaceuticals, a Miami-based seller of sexual enhancement supplements. The FDA said the tablets contained a sildenafil analogue called hydroxhomosildenafil. The bust followed a separate raid of Shangai Distributors Inc., during which agents seized $100,000 worth of pills that originated in China and were packaged in Coamo, Puerto Rico. It all hit disturbingly close to home.

The seizures—the first ever of sex enhancement supplements—represented an escalation of FDA enforcement. Should Erb be worried? The worst-case scenario for the Miami defendants, he emailed Harvey, was three years in prison. “3 years isn’t bad. I thought it would be worse,” Erb said, adding, in an apparent reference to sexual assault among the incarcerated, “OUCH, not in BUTT!!!!” Ultimately, Erb and Harvey took comfort from the fact that, before the raid, SEI had refused an FDA request to recall its tablets.

The back-and-forth suggested that FDA crackdowns were less like being wrestled to the ground by an irate gorilla and more like following a choreographed contra dance, in which businesses could forever forestall prosecution by switching up their steps whenever the government called for a different tune. And so, instead of closing down, Erb asked Harvey to send him another $39,849.60 worth of Stiff Nights.

What Erb didn’t know was that the sexual enhancement supplement industry had been slowly inching its way up the FDA’s priority list over the past few years. Stiff Nights imitators were popping up everywhere—sex shops, gas stations, and web-based retailers. The names ranged from frat boy raunchy (Stud Capsules for Men) to pseudoscientific (Axcil, Virilis) to linguistically challenged (Bigger Longer More Time More Sperms) to strangely literary (H S Joy of Love) or even retrofuturistic (Wonder-Erect Male Pills, not to be confused with Wonder-Erect Male Gum). To get a sense of how many of the bunch were bad apples, the FDA’s Internet and Health Fraud Team bought and tested 17 different brands. Shockingly, more than a third contained unlicensed pharmaceuticals. And there were hundreds of brands out there.

Before the problem got out of control, the FDA resolved to break the backs of the black market profiteers, cautioning operators it would use “warning letters, seizures, injunctions, import alerts, and criminal prosecution.” That year, the agency identified 20 tainted products—a good start.

Erb, meanwhile, was working out the kinks in the Stiff Nights operation. “We offer something MUCH better than a guarantee!” the FAQ on the website announced. “We are offering a free trial of the product. You only need to pay a modest $2.99 for Shipping and Handling. Get your free sample NOW!!” This was a new direct-to-consumer sales method, and people were willingly entering their credit card information. Those who read the fine print learned that the transaction would trigger what Erb called “the convenient Just-In-Time Autoship Program”: Fifteen days after the sample shipped, customers would be charged an additional $29.95 for six pills. In theory, they would keep receiving bottles each month until the day they died (and beyond, if their credit card held up).

If some customers were turned off by the sneaky charges, far more were turned on by Stiff Nights’ efficacy. Because, amazingly, Stiff Nights worked.

The bursting of the real estate bubble in 2008 hurt most American commerce, but Stiff Nights emerged as recession-proof. Getting as much as $10 for a single pill, retailers flooded Erb with orders. Court documents show that in January 2009, Erb placed his first six-figure order with Harvey, for $115,066.72. The following month, he placed an even bigger order, for $195,154.94. Less than two years after its November 2007 debut, Stiff Nights had become one of the fastest-growing dietary supplements in America. In the first half of 2010, Erb said, he took in about $1.5 million (roughly half of it profit); he predicted the product’s explosive growth would make him another $2.5 million in the second half.

Deftly, Erb splashed money around, reinvesting to insure himself against supply interruptions, buying up distressed real estate, and tapping new markets. In the Grand Rapids office, he built up a back inventory valued at $650,000, and spent $650,000 more on marketing and trade show promotions. And there was still money left over for Erb to spend on Erb. He bought a van. He bought a Cessna. He bought a $700,000 home in Hawaii, where he planned to retire in comfort when he quit the business. But for Erb, the money was really secondary.

“The greatest joy I ever got in my life, more than the planes and the houses, it was the guys at the trade shows,” he said. As he cornered 80 percent of the male enhanced sexual supplement market, he became a rock star. Men came up and gripped Erb’s hand, saying that he had given them self-confidence. Erb Avore, once a shy boy named Chad, knew just how important self-confidence was. Inevitably, it brought a tear to his eye. And so, at every trade show, Erb would find himself standing in close conference with one of his fans, both of them crying with joy. It was, in a weird way, beautiful.

Erb was unstoppable. Until, suddenly, he was stopped. It turned out that there was no contra dance. The FDA was the irate gorilla after all.


The Stiff Nights empire was built upon millions of purchases by men who wanted to make their penises harder without resorting to doctor-prescribed drugs. Who were they?

There is a partisan lean to opting out of the mainstream medical establishment, one that has aligned vegan activists like Erb with anti-institutional forces within the Republican Party.

Red states have some of the highest rates of uninsured people, and by 2019 their numbers topped 18 percent in Texas, a trend that helps explain industry reports showing that the South consumes more supplements than any other region in the United States. On the other hand, the liberal Northeast and deep-blue Democratic states elsewhere are marked by a high percentage of medical prescriptions given for erectile dysfunction.

Nationally, just 26 percent of Republicans have a great deal of trust in medical scientists to act in the public’s interests. That lack of trust is expressed in the push for medical freedom, a bedrock libertarian principle that coalesces around various hot-button issues: access to medical marijuana, abortion, choice of doctors, and assisted suicide, among others.

Not coincidentally, the marketplace for sex-augmenting supplements is a cash cow for many conservative politicians. In 2014, journalist Ben Adler blew the whistle on former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who sold the email addresses of hundreds of thousands of his conservative supporters to hawkers of the erectile dysfunction treatment TestoMax200. Pitching health hoaxes is a staple of Republican campaigners, including Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Alan Keyes, who can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars from the effort. All those dollars ultimately rely on continuously stimulating the appetite of the GOP base for unregulated health care.

Both parties, it should be said, have been showered with nutritional and dietary supplement money over the past 20 years—$6.6 million in donations to Republicans as compared to $4.9 million to Democrats since 2002—but only Democrats consistently advocate for more regulation of supplements (and Big Pharma) with legislation or, under President Obama, with a Federal Trade Commission effort to heighten clinical trial standards so as to prevent inflated claims of health benefits.

The partisan disparity may be best exemplified by Utah’s former Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, who repaid hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies like Herbalife with various pieces of regulation-softening legislation. In addition to sponsoring the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, Hatch co-wrote a rule exempting supplement ingredients marketed before 1994 from the already weak regulatory standards. When Hatch (whose son, Scott Hatch, was a paid industry lobbyist) announced his forthcoming retirement from the Senate in 2018, the Council for Responsible Nutrition put out a statement lauding its “champion,” whose “hard work and dedication have well-served consumers of our products.”

It all added up to a self-inflicted wound on red America. Conservative politicians espouse free trade and fiscal conservatism while cutting regulatory agencies, and the loose regulation stimulates shadow industries that pour money into the coffers of prominent Republicans, all at the expense of conservative men desperate to meet the masculine ideals celebrated particularly by the right: toughness, self-reliance, sexual prowess.

What remained to be seen was how this dynamic might be affected by Donald Trump.


On a Wednesday in June 2010, Erb was working in one of his three Grand Rapids offices when he got an alert from his home security system; at his house, he found FDA officers searching every cranny for illegal drugs. Erb later recounted that before he’d fully absorbed what was going on, his phone rang. His employees at the debt settlement company, which had nothing to do with Stiff Nights, had been ordered into a small room, while agents searched those offices, too. It was a bad day.

There were no drugs at the debt office or Erb’s home, but when the feds went through the Impulsaria office space, they confiscated millions of dollars’ worth of Stiff Nights. For Erb, who viewed himself as a legitimate businessman acting in good faith, the raid left him feeling violated and shaken. After the agents drove off, he called Harvey. He was out. “I gave it up,” he said. “Cold turkey.”

Erb was deeply attached to the satisfying belief that he had discovered an herbal formula that worked a kind of magic. He suspected the FDA was unfairly targeting him, perhaps on behalf of Big Pharma. And his position, then and now, is that the FDA broke into his house without warning. “Tell me I did something wrong,” he said, “and I will modify my behavior, and do it quickly.”

But the record shows that warning signs abounded. Six months before the raid, in November 2009, the FDA announced that its lab testing suggested Stiff Nights contained the analogue sulfoaildenafil; that same month, Erb’s bottling company, Future Pak, stopped bottling his products, pending FDA approval.

At the time, Erb even suggested to Harvey that they cease production and “just be happy with our happy ending.” Anyway, he was almost out of bottles. But Harvey urged him to “just do business as usual until they say stop.” Harvey would handle the bottling through Novacare. “So far we don’t know what their issue is and we haven’t done anything wrong.… I say keep going and try to get as much of your inventory pushed out to distributors as possible.”

In March 2010, FDA agents visited ­Novacare, asking questions about Stiff Nights, and took three raw materials to sample, including OT. Meanwhile, even as he urged Erb to keep going, Harvey was desperately looking for tweaks that would allow him to slip the noose of the FDA. He asked his Chinese supplier if it would be possible to produce Stiff Nights overseas, and then ship the product directly to customers. The supplier said no—the massive quantities would never clear customs. Harvey pressed ahead. Could a different effective formulation be found? Could they ship a million pills to an unrelated company in Mexico? But nothing seemed promising.

After the raids, Harvey was indicted on various felony counts associated with the Stiff Nights supplements and a weight loss product laced with ephedrine; eventually, he admitted to conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud, and concealment money laundering in a plea deal that included three years in prison (“OUCH!”) and the forfeiture of more than $500,000. Erb was not charged with any crimes.

When Erb says that the FDA broke into his house without warning, what he really means is that he thought that he was still in a discussion phase. In his mind, the government had not proved that Stiff Nights was, in fact, illegal. “I asked for proof,” he said, “and they ignored me.” Erb also had another reason to disbelieve the FDA’s assertion that his product was tainted with drugs—but we’ll get to that in a moment.


In early 2016, the Republican presidential primary was wide open, with 12 candidates articulating 12 different visions of the GOP’s future. But many had one thing in common: financial ties to the supplements industry, which spent a record high $9.7 million on the 2016 campaign cycle. (Incidentally, Hillary Clinton’s hands were not clean of snake oil, to the tune of $59,000 in 2016 campaign contributions, more than any of the Republican contenders.)

As primary voting got underway, Republicans began dropping from the race. On February 1, it was former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who, in addition to selling email addresses to purveyors of ineffective heart disease cures, took thousands in supplement donations. Huckabee was quickly followed by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, longtime member of a supplement-supporting, right-wing medical freedom group that does not believe HIV causes AIDS, but does believe that abortions cause breast cancer. Soon after, it was governors Jim Gilmore and Jeb Bush (Bush’s campaign was also funded, in part, by supplements), each of whom had boosted sexual enhancement supplements by opposing Medicaid-funded Viagra treatments in his state.

As the race narrowed, no one knew which of the candidates who owed a debt of gratitude to the supplements industry would win: Would it be Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who had taken more supplement money than anyone else in the field? Texas Senator Ted Cruz, whose family’s financial fortunes were once saved by Mannatech, a religiously inspired supplement company that sells “Mannatech Men’s prime 7” (“may improve sex drive & libido” and “support healthy erectile function”)? By spring of 2016, the primary was tilting toward Donald Trump, a game-show host and born billionaire whose “Trump Network” health kit consisted of a dodgy health package of vitamins and a urine test. On Super Tuesday, Trump netted just 35 percent of the primary vote. During the next debate, the candidate, already famously quick to defend the size of his hands, said, oddly, “I guarantee you there’s no problem, I guarantee,” in reference to the size and capabilities of his penis.

It was a seminal moment. The Republican base was smitten. They put him in office, and haven’t stopped thinking about him since.

If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, Trump’s success suggests that the way to a man’s vote is through his penis. (And indeed, a study published in The Washington Post linked 2016 Trump voters to online searches for “erectile dysfunction.”) At one of Trump’s inaugural balls, the anti-vaccine activist Andrew Wakefield, a former doctor and nutritional supplement patent holder, threw down the gauntlet to the medical establishment. “What we need now is a huge shake-up at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—a huge shake-up,” Wakefield told reporters.

Wakefield’s statement signaled that long-simmering public distrust was about to be focused, marshaled, and organized through the highest levels of government, in an effort to tear down, rather than reform, government regulatory agencies and the medical establishment. According to the Commonwealth Fund, during the first two years of Trump’s presidency, the ranks of uninsured working-age people swelled by four million. In 2017, more than 1.4 million Americans went overseas for medical care, sometimes for treatments that would be illegal stateside. And in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic unfurled over a nightmarish landscape in which science was often upstaged by sheer wackiness.

In July, as public health experts struggled to put together cohesive messaging, Trump tweeted a video of Houston doctor and church leader Stella Immanuel, who touted hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus cure, and has claimed erectile dysfunction is caused by astrally projected female demons. That same month, having hawked his last unproven erectile dysfunction cure, Herman Cain died of Covid-19 after attending an ill-advised Oklahoma Trump rally that didn’t take public health precautions.

Trump invited many conservatives linked to unsupported erectile dysfunction treatments into the national echo chamber. Trumpist Mike Lindell, who amassed a $300 million fortune by huckstering branded pillows, urged the president to back an herbal oleander extract as a coronavirus treatment. Lindell sits on the board of Phoenix Biotechnology, a Texas-based firm that claims its oleandrin also treats erectile dysfunction–causing infections. Both the FDA and the U.S. Army invested valuable resources to study oleandrin as a treatment, but each soon concluded that it showed no promise. That didn’t stop Ben Carson (a 2016 presidential candidate and former paid shill for Mannatech who had by then been appointed secretary of housing and urban development) from taking oleander extract himself, when he caught Covid after declining to wear a mask at public functions.

The Trump presidency is over, but the partisan debate over coronavirus rages on. Public health experts seeking to win conservative support might take note of a small-scale study that found that men with Covid-19 were six times more likely to have erectile dysfunction than non-Covid sufferers. If that were true—and oh, wouldn’t it be amazing if it were?—they could tell unvaccinated men that one way to protect themselves from erectile dysfunction would be to socially distance and wear a mask.


On September 22, 2012, 27 months after Erb’s once-mighty river of little red capsules had been drained dry by the might of the federal government, a 37-year-old man named David McElwee and his fiancée, Bonnie Magyar, went into Erotic City, a shabby cinder block store in Kansas City, Missouri, and walked out, giggling, with a packet of Stiff Nights.

More Stiff Nights was for sale at the Velvet Touch, a grody Kalamazoo shop, and Déjà Vu Love Boutique, in Lansing. Outside Michigan, packets lined the shelves of E&A Video and Magazine in Nutley, New Jersey. Bulk supplies were available in the Capitol News Agency, an adult product wholesale company near Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Stiff Nights was on thriftywholesaler.com, on Top5supps.com, and at scores of other pill purveyors.

Erb wasn’t making a penny on any of them. They were counterfeits, made by persons unknown to cash in on the Stiff Nights brand. It was this flood of fakes that made Erb suspicious of the FDA’s assertion that his product was tainted. He couldn’t get a straight answer about what, precisely, the agency was testing. “They weren’t saying that it was or wasn’t my samples,” he said. Wasn’t it at least possible that the FDA, perhaps as a favor to Big Pharma, was blaming him for tainted product from a counterfeit packet?

Even before the raid, Erb estimated that nearly half of the Stiff Nights packets in circulation were counterfeit. Erb had spilled his own blood, sweat, tears, and other bodily fluids on a monomaniacal quest to bring an herbal Viagra to market, and now here he was, a victim of the very dynamic—aggressive digital marketing opportunities in a loosely regulated industry—that he had helped pioneer.

Erb waged a legal battle against almost 60 different companies and individuals that he alleged were selling counterfeits, but by 2013 he had spent $200,000, and no one had been found guilty of anything. “We simply ran out of money,” Erb said. “I should have bought three more houses and be living the decent life, instead of living in a 200-square-foot room.” Millions of people were buying and selling Stiff Nights—and Erb alone could not sell a single pill.

David McElwee, the Erotic City customer, worked as an educational tech administrator and held a master’s in creative writing. Described as silly and fun-loving, he was looking forward to a family trip to take photographs of local zoo animals. But within hours of ingesting a single Stiff Nights capsule, he fell unconscious and was rushed to the hospital, where, after three days in the ICU, he died. McElwee left behind two sons, ages 5 and 11.

A representative of McElwee’s family filed suit against Erotic City, Harvey’s ­Novacare in Utah, and Impulsaria, which at that point still existed on paper but had no active operations. “These products need to be removed from the shelves of businesses,” their lawyer said. “As doctors that treated Mr. McElwee informed us, this was not an isolated incident.” Impulsaria was served a summons in October 2013, and served again in 2015, but when I asked Erb about it in 2021, I was surprised by his response. “Who is this? McElwee?” he said. “This is the first time I ever heard of it.” I offered a brief summary. “That’s horrible,” he said. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Impulsaria did not actively participate in the lawsuit, but after years of wrangling, Erotic City settled for $1 million, of which about $184,000 was set aside for each of the two sons; Novacare settled for an undisclosed amount. Whether McElwee died of the Impulsaria version of Stiff Nights or whether the culprit was a counterfeit brand has not been made public.


To a casual observer, it might have seemed that the FDA was kicking the ass of the illicit sex supplement market. Agents stationed at international mailing centers confiscate roughly 2,200 packages of black-market pharmaceuticals every month. The FDA has also identified and shut down roughly 500 black market sex supplement operators. But in reality, the agency is barely making a dent. Just 29 workers track 80,000 supplement products. Another 22 import investigators check just 0.16 percent of the 275 million packages entering each year. Their best guess is that 24,723,650 packages of illicit pharmaceuticals slip through the net annually. “We’ve seen pills, coffees, chewing gum and dissolvable oral strips that contain hidden drug ingredients or untested chemicals,” said Gary Coody, the FDA’s national health fraud coordinator.

Today, Erb and the FDA have something in common. They’ve both been utterly defeated by the unstoppable legacy of the Stiff Nights empire. Without even a brand name to protect, no one along the black-market chain—retailers, distributors, packagers, suppliers of raw ingredients—cares about consumer health. The ingredient listings on the labels are so much garbage. One sex enhancement pill brand seized by the FDA had 31 times the prescription dose of tadalafil (the active ingredient in Cialis), along with an antidepressant. Others had cocktails of as many as six different unapproved drugs or analogues. Still others included dyes and filler, like blue printer ink and drywall. And dietary supplements have been found to contain boric acid, floor wax, and rat poison.

It was still easy to find a packet of Stiff Nights. But knowing what was inside that packet was virtually impossible.

One day, Erb got a call from a guy he knew from the marketing community. He suggested they go in on a new venture together. “I have an idea that will make you 10K a week,” the man said to Erb. “I have a product that makes men hard for hours.” There was, of course, a catch: “It’s called Viagra.” The man proposed a web-based platform helping licensed medical practitioners to prescribe Viagra to people they’d never met. He had doctors lined up, ready to prescribe.

The idea was a clear moneymaker, but Erb wouldn’t touch it. Sure, Erb Avore might have made millions by accidentally selling a drug to hordes of horny men. But he’s not a fucking sellout. And he doesn’t support synthetic drugs. “I’m not going to be a charlatan and do a bogus product,” he said. And yet the conversation made him realize something. He missed Stiff Nights.

And so, after much soul-searching, he resumed his quest to help men regain the thunder. But as he tested plant after plant, a tiny doubt took hold in his chest and began to grow. If he still hadn’t found what he was looking for, then perhaps—this was difficult even to think—perhaps it didn’t exist.

The uncomfortable realization settled in. The Stiff Nights magic had not come from herbs after all. He’d been not an herbal savior, but a drug peddler. Someone along the supply chain had deceived him. The FDA was right all along. “I was oblivious to the fact that it could contain a drug,” he said. “I am to this day horrified that this might be true.”

I asked Erb what that moment of comprehension sounded like. “I went,” he responded, “‘Oh.’” For a confident guy like Erb Avore, it was about the smallest, weakest sound he could make.


Stiff Nights knockoffs will undoubtedly continue to be sold until legislators get serious about building a medical establishment that people want to be a part of, and do more to rein in the scofflaws and charlatans thriving in the wilds of the supplements industry. Stiff Nights’ persistence demonstrates the vibrancy of a tangled and impenetrable alliance between dietary supplements, the medical freedom movement, the Republican establishment, and millions of Americans who trust the labeling on a packet of sex-shop pills over a trained doctor.

Over the last several years, Erb has cashed out his Stiff Nights–era investments. He sold the Cessna to a volunteer firefighter from a couple of towns over. He unloaded a bunch of Grand Rapids–area real estate, including two properties that sold for $135,000 each to a company owned by Ricardo “Ricky” Labra, who once faced heat from the FTC for using fake news websites to market acai berry supplements. Those who did business with Erb found him to be eccentric but likable, possessed of a notable disregard for social mores—as when he showed up to a business-casual lunch meeting in an Ethiopian restaurant on a slushy January day, unkempt and wearing derby blue slippers, shorts, and some sort of colorful traditional Indonesian coat. The figure he cuts these days offers a sharp contrast to Chad Erb, the shy boy who once spent every day fearing his classmates’ disapprobation.

As Erb liquidated his assets, he put the real estate proceeds into an account to satisfy a mammoth overdue tax bill assessed by the Internal Revenue Service in connection with his Indian debt-collection agency. But Erb bears the IRS no ill will. “As much as I don’t like people some days because they screwed me over,” he said, “at the end of the day I have to love them. Including the IRS.”

And Erb’s quest, unfulfilled, still beckons.

In April 2021, Erb was in the forests of Tanzania, an immense repository of medicinal biodiversity, working on a new business venture. He has a secret: There is an herb that works. He won’t name it, but in Africa, before the whole Stiff Nights affair, he boiled the plant’s roots and drank the tea. The erection lasted, off and on, for three days.

To Erb, that plant is the stuff of legend. It’s his white whale. But he had just that one little bit, and he hasn’t encountered another sample since. Should he be lucky enough to find it, he says he would do things differently, post–Stiff Nights. He would process the plant himself, consume it himself, test it repeatedly, never let it out of his sight. Then he would know that it was not a drug, but a natural, masculine magic: men hunched behind desks, giggling because they were hard.

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