This weekend I had an enlightening conversation with a powerful Washington attorney on the topic of dietary supplements who shared, “the problem with dietary supplements is that they are not regulated by the federal government.” “Not true,” I replied. “In fact, dietary supplements are the most regulated of all foods.” I got a blank stare.
This conversation made me wonder how is it that well-educated, thoughtful people have come to believe in the dangers of dietary supplements? First, let’s enter stage left, PBS, and its January 19 broadcast of Supplements and Safety. Second, there is The New York Times and Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) news funding of the PBS/Frontline production. Third, these words of acting Food and Drug Administration (FDA) director Dr. Stephen Ostroff, MD, “The FDA does not do any review of dietary supplements before they come on the market and I think that all consumers need to understand this.” Frontline picked up that ball and ran, asserting the industry is unregulated, the FDA does no testing, and there is no evaluation of safety and efficacy. Who was listening? According to PBS, 100 million people watch their local stations every month. Fifty-seven percent are between the ages of 25-54. The average income of the head of house exceeds $100,000 and 50 percent of viewers have at least a college education. I’m guessing many take supplements.
Frontline featured anti-supplement poster child Paul Offit throughout the program, but never disclosed his financial relationship with Merck, leading me to wonder what else they were not reporting. It turns out Merck is a corporate sponsor of PBS. Now add the self-described Halo Effect for corporate advertisers. Eighty-one percent believe PBS is selective about the business and products that can advertise on PBS. Advertisers need to be kept happy (It’s worth noting the online ad for the program featuring Dr. Pepper and Cheez-It crackers has been swapped for Annie’s Organic Soups).
Shortly after the program aired, PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler published a review of the highly critical responses to the program. I say, in the spirit of transparency let’s keep this conversation going. I say, let’s all write to our local PBS station with the following message:
1. While supplements are not regulated as drugs, they are fully regulated under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). The law prohibits marketing of adulterated or misbranded products, thus safety and labeling must be evaluated in order to meet the law. FDA is required to take action against adulterated or misbranded product in the market. In addition, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates industry claims.
2. True, the law does not require pre-market approval of supplements, unlike pharmaceuticals, it is also true that pre-market review for drugs requires NO independent testing by FDA, only review the manufacturers’ own data (Merck’s Vioxx was on the market for five years, before FDA pulled the product for cardiac toxicity).
3. Legally prescribed drugs kill more than 100,000 people per year. A 2012 report by the Alliance for Natural Health showed adverse reactions to drugs are 62,000 times more likely to kill you than food supplements. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported zero deaths from vitamins, minerals, or any other dietary supplement in 2014, while Tylenol is linked to 500 deaths annually!
4. PBS, tell us who is funding your programming.
The popular PBS show, Downtown Abbey is drawing to a close, and I foresee a breakup in my future. I may continue to watch, but until I know who’s funding PBS’ investigative reporting, I won’t make any donations.
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Biography: Karen Howard, CEO and Executive Director of Organic & Natural Health Association, is a visionary and results-focused leader who has spent more than 30 years working with Congress, state legislatures and healthcare organizations to develop innovative healthcare policy and programs. She has held a variety of executive positions, including serving as professional staff for a Congressional committee, and has policy expertise in the diverse areas of integrative and complementary medicine, managed care, healthcare technology and mental health. An advocate at heart, she has worked to strategically advance the mission and vision of organizations through effective advocacy and strong collaboration.