Founder of weight-loss empire dead at 44

'If they're such experts, then why are they fat?' he once said of U.S. federal regulators

Associated Press, May 23, 2000

Malibu, Calif. -- Mark Reynolds Hughes, multimillionaire founder of the Herbalife empire of weight-loss and nutritional products, has died aged 44.

Mr. Hughes was found dead on Sunday in his Malibu mansion, said Sergeant Norine Plett of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

He died of apparent natural causes but an autopsy will determine the exact cause of death, she said.

Los Angeles-based Herbalife, which Mr. Hughes founded in 1980, sells products in 48 countries, according to its Web site.

It said Mr. Hughes was inspired to found the company by the death of his mother from an accidental overdose of prescription diet pills when he was 18. In a message on the site, Mr. Hughes wrote: "I've dedicated my life to bringing the finest weight-loss, nutritional and personal-care products to everyone around the world."

But during the 1980s, Mr. Hughes battled the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the California attorney-general's office over the way the company's products were marketed. Regulators contended the company was making medicinal claims. Medicines are regulated by the FDA, while nutritional supplements are not.

"If they're such experts, then why are they fat?" Mr. Hughes said in 1985 at a Senate hearing. "I've lost 16 pounds in the last few years."

Mr. Hughes reached settlements with the regulatory agencies in 1986 that involved paying $850,000 to settle California regulators' claims.

That same year, Mr. Hughes took his company public. But he announced plans last fall to buy it back and make it private. In April, he announced he was withdrawing his $510-million (U.S.) offer because of difficulties in arranging financing.

Herbalife's 1999 sales totalled $956.2-million.

Mr. Hughes made headlines last year with plans to build a 45,000-square-foot home on 157 acres above affluent Benedict Canyon, raising criticism of neighbourhood residents. Had it been built, it would have been bigger than the White House.

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