Health activists and local residents packed a hearing conducted by Rep. Elton Gallegly in Ventura on Friday to oppose new regulations on dietary supplements and vitamins.
The Simi Valley Republican is the co-author of pending legislation to head off the new rules, which are scheduled to go into effect in July. Opponents of the regulations say they would restrict the availability of supplements and in some cases eliminate them from the marketplace.
The federal Food and Drug Administration, which developed the rules, contends that they will only ensure that the labeling on supplements is truthful.
"The rhetoric that the FDA plans on banning any supplements or requiring prescriptions for vitamins just isn't true," said Mitchell Zeller, an FDA spokesman who attended the hearing. "This is a truth-in-labeling issue. We want to protect the consumer from unsubstantiated claims."
The FDA has said that health claims for vitamins, minerals, herbs and other supplements will be subjected to the same requirements that currently apply to most foods.
Under the agency's proposal, any claim touting the health benefits of a vitamin or supplement must be substantiated by "significant scientific agreement among qualified experts."
At the hearing, held in the Reagan Room at the Ventura Holiday Inn, Zeller was almost alone in supporting the rules. Members of the 200-strong audience often broke in with objections to his assertions that the regulations would not hurt the $4-billion health-supplement industry.
"Let me decide what goes in my body," a man in the audience yelled.
"As you can see, this is an emotional issue," Gallegly said during the intermission. "This really has to do with government regulation and the government saying they know better."
Other panelists gathered by Gallegly and a panel of doctors who practice alternative medicine in Southern California wowed the crowd with their claims of the benefits of nutritional supplements.
Dr. Joan Priestly said the 700 AIDS patients she is treating with supplements are healthier than those treated with conventional drugs.
"I've heard these kind of claims before," said John Gleason, a senior staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Gleason was the only person to speak in support of the FDA rules.
"Those claims lure people into treatment or into purchasing supplements, and they're not substantiated," Gleason said. "The new rules are to ensure that people get accurate information."
Priestly said she could substantiate her claims.
Health-supplement supporters contend that information from studies such as Priestly's would be suppressed by the FDA. Gleason conceded that the regulations would prevent health stores from giving out information on vitamins and minerals that contains unsubstantiated health claims, even if the information was clipped from articles and independent reports.
This was particularly objectionable to supporters of the nutritional-supplement industry who spoke Friday.
"I have a moral obligation to disseminate information that will help my fellow citizens," said Dr. Julian Whitaker, president of the American Preventive Medical Assn., which is working against regulations on the industry.
"I will not abide by the FDA's regime of censorship," Whitaker added. He then reached for a canister of vitamins labeled with the claims that Vitamin B prevents spina bifida and that Vitamin C may reduce the risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer.
Holding it aloft along with an inch-thick binder of articles on the benefits of supplements, Whitaker said: "Does anyone want to buy these truthfully labeled nutritional supplements?"
He sold three canisters amid a din of applause before Gallegly brought the hearing back to order.