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Supplement Media Attack: Another Case of Déjà Vu?

Supplement Media Attack: Another Case of Déjà Vu?

If a health product works, it’s cheap, and it isn’t made by a pharmaceutical company, it will come under attack by the mainstream scientific institutions, authorities, and the media. Scientific American’s latest attack is in a long line of hit-pieces against dietary supplements that, if taken seriously and implemented, would result in the supplement industry being wiped out. Action Alert!

The editorial in Scientific American (SA) not only calls for implementing Senator Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) supplement hit list that we successfully defeated last year; not only does it urge the FDA to regulate supplements more like drugs; it calls for supplements to be regulated more than drugs by requiring third-party testing for safety and efficacy. All this for a group of products that are safer than conventional foods, as shown by our sister organization, the Alliance for Natural Health International (ANH-Intl) using European data. Supporting these absurd recommendations are the same old, weak arguments that have been used to attack supplements for years; they were wrong then, and they’re wrong now. We have to push back against these baseless viewpoints, lest they be used by Congress to support passing Sen. Durbin’s anti-supplement policy in this Congress.

The FDA already has the power it needs to stop fraudulent products, or products spiked with illegal ingredients, from the market. In the past, we should remember that FDA leadership deliberately refused to enforce laws in the hope that something would occur which was so bad that the public would call for a drug-like regulatory scheme for supplements.

Like many of the other anti-supplement hit pieces we’ve rebutted in the past, the SA editorial starts by asserting that supplements are unregulated: “Right now no federal agency fully oversees the clinical testing and chemical verification of nutraceuticals in the U.S., and these products are often plagued by quality and safety problems.” In fact, current good manufacturing practices (cGMPs) for supplements could not be more stringent. Laws to guarantee safe products are already on the books, and it is up to the FDA to enforce those laws. If once in a great while some bad actors fail to meet current high standards, and the FDA fails to hold them accountable, this should not reflect on the entire industry. Every industry has its share of bad actors – and the supplement industry has actually had very few by comparison with others, especially when compared with the highly regulated pharmaceutical industry (see here and here).

The editorial moves on to cite a popular statistic drawn from a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine back in 2015: “A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that about 23,000 emergency department visits and more than 2,000 hospitalizations every year are attributed to adverse effects of dietary supplements.”

Let’s remind ourselves this was an estimate. An estimate that actually came from just 3667 cases found in 63 hospitals participating in the CDC’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System–Cooperative Adverse Drug Event Surveillance (NEISS-CADES) project between 2004 and 2013. In that sense it’s not real data, on real people.  

When this statistic was released in 2015, we also noted that over 20% of the cases analyzed were the result of unsupervised children swallowing pills, while 40% of cases among those 65 and older were caused by choking. Many other cases were heart palpitations from ingesting too many diet pills, sexual enhancement pills, and energy drinks. But why let the facts get in the way of propaganda?

Even if we were to accept the 23,000 estimate, it actually demonstrates, in our view, the safety of supplements. Considering that more than half of US adults—about 200 million people—use dietary supplements regularly, 23,000 ER visits, assuming each visit involves a different person, represents only about 0.0115% of dietary supplement users.  Let’s remember that supplement related deaths are also negligible, unlike with foods, and especially not with drugs, that are the third leading cause of death in the USA.

Compared to the number of deaths from FDA-approved drugs, this is minuscule. Properly-prescribed drugs cause about 1.9 million hospitalizations and 128,000 deaths per year! According to National Poison Data System, dietary supplements cause zero deaths.

In fact, ANH-Intl also found that UK residents were about as likely to die from taking supplements as they were getting struck by lightning!

However you care to manipulate the data, what no one can get away from is the prevailing evidence from multiple sources that supplements are the safest substances we can put in our bodies, and to suggest they are both unsafe and unregulated is a perversion of the facts.

The assumption of the editors of SA seems to be that drug regulation is the model that should be applied to supplements and this will somehow protect the public. No consideration is given to the value supplements provide in supporting individual self-care, keeping people healthier longer, and reducing the burden on the mainstream healthcare system. The editors call for third-party testing to ensure supplements’ safety and efficacy. Ridiculously, this is an even higher bar than that required of drugs!

The FDA uses industry studies to determine if new drugs can come to market. No independent testing is done to check the industry’s results. This system presents many opportunities for manipulation. In the past, drug companies have withheld evidence that might lead a drug to be rejected, and the results have been disastrous (see, for example, the approval of Vioxx, which then killed 60,000 people). In other instances, FDA regulators ignore warnings from the agency’s own doctors in order to rush drugs through the approval process that are later found to be dangerous (see, for example, the case of Avandia). One of the reasons the system can be manipulated is the revolving door that is in full operation at the FDA that allows industry undue influence over the agency meant to regulate it.

Like the many hit pieces before it, the SA editorial warns us that “People might choose [supplements] products over medical interventions for serious illnesses or take one that interacts with their current medications.” Supplement critics making this point often add that supplements don’t have a benefit outside of treating nutritional deficiencies which are rare in the US. They have clearly failed to evaluate data from the clinics of the thousands of physicians practicing integrative, functional and other modalities of non-pharmaceutical medicine. They simply don’t know what they don’t (choose to) know.

Most consumers don’t take supplements to treat a disease. They take supplements to bolster their overall health in combination with diet, exercise, and lifestyle choices. The integrative community knows there’s no “magic pill” for health, it understands the complexity and multi-factorial nature of body systems and health conditions, and it therefore strives for holistic solutions. It’s the medical establishment that believes in the “one pill per symptom” approach to health.

And while there may not be many textbook cases of nutritional deficiency in the US, this is largely because the National Institutes for Health and the National Academy of Medicine consistently under-estimate optimal levels of nutrients required for peak health. In fact, large swaths of the American public are not getting the nutrients they need through diet. Poor diet is unquestionably a driver of chronic disease. Research has shown that micronutrient inadequacies can impact long-term health, increasing risk for diseases like cancercardiovascular diseasetype 2 diabetes, and viruses.

All of these bad and misleading arguments, that in turn receive wide media attention, continue to be grist to the mill for Sen. Durbin’s anti-supplement policy, which we’ve written about at length over the last couple of years. You can read more about the policy here, and our analysis of the implications and potential consequences of this policy here and here.

We defeated Sen. Durbin’s policy last year. Let’s make sure it doesn’t progress this year too!

Action Alert! Write to Congress and oppose Sen. Durbin’s supplement “hit list.” Please send your message immediately.

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3 thoughts on “Supplement Media Attack: Another Case of Déjà Vu?

  • Carl Nye

    I am annoyed with ANH. It’s a good move to inform readers of Senator Durbin’s obsession and his hate for supplements (courtesy of support from PharMa?). But if you want readers to protest Durbin’s legislative actions, PLEASE tell us the name and ID number of the bills he is pushing so we can focus our opposition more directly. I’m sure our congress persons face a tsunami of information and requests. It’s one thing to say, hey, please fix the supplements problem. It is much more effective to say, hey, please fix bill # xxx named YYY. This gives our “leaders” a point of attack (unless, of course, they agree with Durbin) to try to protect supplements.

    Bottom line to ANH: When you ask your readers to support or oppose legislation in Congress, give us the bill name and ID number so we can be most effective.

  • karen

    i do hope that none of your beloved family members are in need of any kind of cancer treatments as my spouse has. Especially in the area of you gentlemen male issues. Example, PROSTATE CANCER. Do your research. Its your duty. 98% of the treatment/procedures given are not needed. Tell me why the PSA levels have been changed over the years?? This is to manipulate the treatments, hence chemo and radiation. My husband was diagnosed 3 years ago. Biopsy done and diagnosis of cancer confirmed with that biopsy. that is the protocol and we did follow that. To the oncologist we went ACCORDING to the protocol. What is the first thing suggested at this point?? They want to do hormone treatments. Why? because testosterone SUPPOSEDLY “fuels” prostate cancer. After doing MUCH research before his diagnosis, that is was pretty sure “coming down the pike” because of his family history of prostate cancer. His brother now terminal with stage 4 prostate cancer. Every treatment given that he was eligible for. Hormone treatments out the ying yang. Suicidal ideations over the years from the hormone treatments. Marital issues from the treatments and his emotional being. Unable to work x past 5 years. My husband has been just great in past 3 years. Yes he did go to mexico for treatments that our government does not ACKNOWLEGE . Stem cell treatments and a vaccine made from his own blood cells. Its time our government and the money hungry insurance companies start to ackowledge the successive treaments of these. We all know why they will not dont we? My husband is doing great. Lost alot of his weight (which he needed to). This was achieved by sticking to a change of eating habits. Not buying store bought BOXED foods. I do ALOT of bulk cooking on weekends (after working at least 50 hrs) EVERY WEEK. I might add he recently retired in march after working no less than 70 hrs every week , 7 days a week x 35 years. He will be 70 years old in one month. Doing great. He is stage 4 prostate cancer, and has been since his diagnosis 3 yrs ago. I can still remember the oncologist telling him on his first visit that he HAD to start hormone treatments right away. Mine and his reply was a firm NO, we are not going that route. He does supplements EVERY day faithfully. and we will continue. we pay $250 every month IN ADDITION TO OUR MEDICARE. I would think it would mean something to the insurance company that they are not spending an EXUBERENT amount of money on treatments they say he NEEDS to have. People need to do their research. He needs these supplements that have been researched and suggested from his treatments in mexico. Yes, we did pay ALOT of money for that 2 weeks in mexico and do not regret it for one minute. Will he have a decline in his health next week, tomorrow, or next year? Thats something nobody knows. We will cross that bridge when he comes to it. We do know that he has had the last three years of his life with no hospital visits, no sickness, no pain in past 3 years. He has accepted his diagnosis and will procede the same way we have in past three years… WITH DIGNITY, something the government will never take from us.

  • Ken B

    I read the Scientific American (SA) editorial cited in your online ANH article. What a piece of misinformation, half-truths, and political bias coming from an otherwise respected scientific magazine and website! The folks at SA should stick to science and stay away from public policy grandstanding. I can only imagine that someone on SA’s editorial board receives funding from the drug industry.

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