Nutritional supplements snake-oil or dangeous products?
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Nutritional supplements snake-oil or dangeous products?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011By Richard Alexander
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) Utah is the go to guy in Washington for the nutritional supplement industry. According to an article in today's New York Times, his continual quest to keep his special interest friends happy is flooding the market with untested products claiming to cure everything from baldness to erectile dysfunction.

Hatch, who is 77, claims his longevity and stamina are the result of the nutritional supplement regimen he follows. He has spent his career in Washington helping the $25-billion-a-year nutritional supplement industry thrive.

However, many public health experts argue that all Hatch has accomplished is to hinder regulators from preventing dangerous products from being put on the market, including supplements that illegally contain steroids, amphetamines or other ingredients  that have been banned or are regulated because of health concerns.

Hatch was the chief author of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. The DSHEA draws firm distinction between over the counter medicines like aspirin and cough syrup and nutritional supplements made from herbs, minerals, vitamins and amino acids. The latter being re-categorized as foods rather than drugs and are subject to, well, almost no regulation.

Purveyors of dietary supplements are not required to prove that their products work or that they will do what they say they will, they are not even required to prove them safe. Since they are classified as foods they are presumed safe unless shown otherwise. Drugs must disclose any risk of side effects, supplements have no such burden.

Drug advertising must be pre-approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which reviews the ads’ accuracy. Dietary supplement advertising is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission which allows the supplement industry to make broad and outrageous claims that are not proven. As long as the supplement manufactures avoid promises to cure a specific disease, their sellers can say pretty much whatever they want, provided only that they have some kind of supporting evidence on file.

This not the same kind of evidence as would be required for products classified as drugs. The evidence does not have to even remotely resemble a real scientific test. They cannot say, “our pill cures cancer.” But if they pay their VP's secretary's boyfriend $20.00 to do a few tests, they can claim, “our pills boost the immune system; clinical trials are under way”

Fifteen years after Congress bought the snake-oil from Sen. Hatch, dietary supplements have grown into a $25 billion a year industry. Most of the products sold by the industry are merely useless, yet some such as Metabolife have caused serious illnesses and death in thousands of people.

Just in the past two years, 2,292 serious illnesses, including 33 deaths, were reported to the FDA by consumers who used supposedly beneficial nutritional supplements. Some of Hatch's most important supporters in Utah have faced repeated accusations of falsely claiming their products can treat almost everything, including cancer and heart disease.

A Google search for "diet pills that work" gets over 10,000,000 hits, "pills that cure cancer" 1,480,000. People looking for a quick fix, an instant cure don't have to do more than watch TV or read a magazine to be bombarded by advertisements from supplement companies that promise so much but deliver so little thanks to Sen. Hatch and his continued support of the supplement industry.

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