Thousands of health-food stores are warning customers that the Food and Drug Administration wants to ban or require a prescription for a wide range of vitamins and other dietary supplements. That message is echoed in newsletters read by supplement-takers and industry magazines. People are being urged to write to Congress in support of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, sponsored by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Bill Richardson (D-New Mexico). And tens of thousands are doing just that.
Those bills would strip the FDA--which has historically been strongly anti-supplement--of much of its traditional authority to regulate the industry. That would satisfy ardent supplement-takers who fear that the agency would ban many harmless products. But as Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), often a harsh critic of the FDA, has said, "Every fact available to me indicates that FDA is neither on a mission to destroy the nutritional supplement market, nor does the agency have the resources to accomplish such a mission even if it wanted to."
In fact, the supplement industry's real agenda is to persuade Congress to exempt supplements from the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, the new truth-in-labeling law that requires all health claims on labels of foods and supplements to be supported by good science.
Make no mistake--there are legitimate concerns with the overregulation of herbs, amino acids and similar products. Zealots in and out of government have long denigrated supplements and would like to ban many of them. But allowing unfounded, often misleading and sometimes fraudulent health claims on labels is hardly the answer to misplaced zealotry.
Contrary to industry hyperbole, the labeling act does not ban products. It does ban label claims not supported by "significant scientific agreement." Food manufacturers that once were practically touting oat-bran potato chips as a heart tonic are complying with the new law. But complying could be painful for companies whose profits depend on supplements claiming to cure everything from impotence to baldness.
For instance, the Hatch / Richardson bills, instead of requiring health claims to be based on solid scientific evidence, would allow a company to print on its label that "A study by a leading university indicates that Vitamin X reduced the risk of cancer in animals by 25%." Industry contends that that kind of information would provide consumers with "accurate scientific information . . . about the relationship between specific nutrients and good health or disease prevention." Never mind that the study was preliminary, irrelevant for humans or never confirmed.
Ironically, if the supplement industry prevails, it is likely to remain a fringe industry. Purveyors, honest or not, would continue to have the credibility of used-car dealers. And that would be most unfortunate, because there is growing scientific evidence that some supplements offer real health benefits.
For example, folic acid, a B vitamin, has been shown to reduce the risk of spina bifida, a congenital spinal defect. One recent study found that a mixture of beta carotene, vitamin E and selenium reduced the rate of stomach cancer in a high-risk population in China. Another study found that a multivitamin reduced the incidence of colds, flu and other infection-related illnesses in people over 65. And major trials are under way at Harvard Medical School and elsewhere to evaluate whether high doses of certain nutrients protect against heart disease, cancer, cataracts and other health problems. The medical Establishment, long staunchly opposed to supplements, is beginning to acknowledge their benefits.
Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.) recently introduced the Dietary Supplement Consumer Protection Act, which delivers what the Hatch / Richardson bills promise--without the special-interest exemption from honest labeling. Her bill would foster the use of beneficial supplements by permitting well-founded health claims and leave harmless, honestly labeled supplements alone. It would also ensure that supplements actually contain what they claim.
Most important, Collins' bill would require health claims on supplement labels to be just as reliable as claims on food labels. After all, why should there be a double standard depending upon whether a substance is added to a food or sold as a supplement?
Under the Collins bill, claims like "helps prevent cancer" would have to be backed up by good science. And defining "good science" would be the government's responsibility, not a manufacturer's. Numerous consumer and health organizations, including Consumers Union, the American Heart Assn. and the American Cancer Society,support Collins' legislation and oppose the Hatch and Richardson bills. One hopes that their efforts will overcome the supplement industry's misleading public-relations practices, which are all too reminiscent of the dubious claims on some of their product labels.