The Vitamin D Council was a US-based nonprofit. It described itself as “a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in California, United States, working to educate the public on vitamin D, sun exposure and health.” VitaminDCouncil.org was the organization’s official website.
If the Vitamin D Council served as “a center for evidence-based vitamin D research and [was] a reliable source for the general public,” it also had an interesting character at its helm: Dr. John Cannell. For example, it was reported that Cannell banned smokers from his clinic in the 1980s because, at the age of 6, he had watched his smoking father die from lung cancer.
Today, any attempts to find VitaminDCouncil.org will show that the website is no longer publishing. If you’re wondering what could have happened to a website that once claimed to have an aggregate of 106,038,085 page views 15 years after it was established, stay put and read this article to the end. We follow the organization’s history, its founder, and some controversies it’s linked to.
The History of the Vitamin D Council
Dr. Cannell established the Vitamin D Council in 2003.
An archived page of VitaminDCouncil.org says that Cannell established the resource because “he believed that there were likely bad consequences in getting so little sun exposure (cough, vitamin D deficiency).” Adding, “So, he founded the Vitamin D Council to educate the public on the importance of sun exposure and vitamin D.”
The Vitamin D Council styled itself as “a group of concerned citizens that believe many humans are needlessly suffering and dying from Vitamin D Deficiency.” The organization added that its goal was to educate the public about vitamin D deficiency and other diseases linked to it.
The Vitamin D Council had a newsletter that it claimed to distribute to more than 24,000 readers. The organization also indicated that, where possible, it wanted to sponsor educational conferences aimed at the media, the general public, and healthcare professionals.
The Vitamin D Council’s conferences aimed to educate these groups “about the extent and consequences of Vitamin D Deficiency and the simple steps that can be taken to avoid it.”
It looks like the Vitamin D Council always struggled to make ends meet, often telling visitors to its website that donations were appreciated. The organization indicated that most of its work was made possible by membership fees, contributing about 80% of revenues. The rest of the money came from sponsors.
Questioning the Government Recommendations
VitaminDCouncil.org reports that Cannell established the organization when conclusions from his studies showed that the recommendations from the “government-sanctioned Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) [were] placing many Americans at risk.”
How were these recommendations placing Americans in harm’s way? According to VitaminDCouncil.org, “Cannell concluded that if one totally avoids the sun and then strictly follows the FNB’s recommendation, one will eventually develop vitamin D deficiency.”
Cannell’s later studies revealed, “that the physiological human requirements (from all sources) for vitamin D are approximately ten times higher than the current AI listed by the FNB.”
The Man Behind the Vitamin D Council
Attempting to follow the history of the Vitamin D Council shows that the organization and its founder are often difficult to separate. Thus, the story of the council would only be partial if we ignored its fascinating founder.
If the formation of the Vitamin D Council was a highlight in Cannell’s life, it certainly wasn’t the only one. A mini biography published by VitaminDCouncil.org describes Cannell, born in 1948, as an antiwar activist who also had a penchant for social activism.
VitaminDCouncil.org says Cannell helped organize the “March on Washington” in 1963. He also took part in a demonstration against the Vietnam War at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention.
One of the most widely reported controversies about Cannell was refusing to provide services to smokers at his Cannell Clinic in West Virginia. He is quoted by Lawrence Altman in an article in the New York Times explaining his stance: “I didn’t want to see any more people in the terminal stages of illnesses that were self-induced and that I couldn’t do anything about.”
However, Cannell would later change his antismoking stance when he listened to the reasons why some coal miners smoked. VitaminDCouncil.org reports that “Long ago coal miners learned the hard way that miners who smoke are more likely to qualify for the federal Black Lung disability program.”
VitaminDCouncil.org says that “Coal miners who have never smoked often do not have the severe pulmonary function deterioration found in smoking miners, and thus no Black Lung.” This means that such individuals would not get the financial benefits enjoyed by their smoking counterparts diagnosed with Black Lung.
A Host of Challenges
In a sign that things didn’t always go as expected at the Vitamin D Council, Cannell penned an article in 2019 where he says, “Three ex-employees and two now ex-Board Members apparently decided I was too autistic, demented and/or drunk to be CEO of the VDC [Vitamin D Council] anymore.” Adding, “So, in August 2018, they tried to oust me with a hostile board takeover attempt.” He would later wrestle control from these employees and board members.
Cannell then spends the rest of the article asking for donations. He writes, “To keep the VDC solvent, I cashed out my IRA to keep the VDC operational.” He adds, “I don’t have any more money; I own no property and have no other assets except two dogs (a Bull Mastiff puppy and a Schnoodle), a Tesla, and a nice watch.”
In a 2019 LinkedIn post, Cannell says, “I’m homeless in LV Nevada researching and planning to write about the homeless.” He asked well-wishers, “Leave me a message at 702 229-6117, The Courtyard.” This prompted someone to reply, “Sorry to hear about your plight. Try and make the best of it, I hear the buffet is decent there, you might try and get to the pool and get some summer sun.”
What Then Happened to the Vitamin D Council?
If Cannell was pleading for help, it doesn’t look like many people were listening. Just before VitaminDCouncil.org went offline in November 2019, it carried a message: “We need to raise $35,000 in 30 days in order to continue fulfilling our mission.”
Unable to raise this amount, it looks like Cannell finally gave up on saving the organization and its assets, including VitaminDCouncil.org.
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