I'd Rather Be Selling Supplements

Photo by Jeff Nelson from Canada (ft_edm_park__0080.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

You and I are in the wrong business, my friend.

Well, unless you are in the nutritional supplement business. In which case only I am in the wrong business.

Because only in the nutritional supplement business can you make billions selling products that not only don’t have to do what you say they do, they don’t even have to be what you say they are.

Unless you get caught. Which GNC, Walgreens, Target and Walmart just did, by the State of New York.

Conservative politicians like to talk about stamping out waste, fraud and abuse. I can’t think of three better words to describe the nutritional supplement racket, and the we-trust-you-until-people-get-hurt regulatory environment it operates in.

(Note: the term “nutritional supplement” as I’m using it is meant to describe products winking-ly sold as specific remedies, like echinacea for colds, or as specific preventatives, like ginkgo for Alzheimer’s disease. But considering there’s a whole section at my local Walgreen’s devoted to vitamins and minerals dispensed in gummy candy form—for both adults and children—there’s a lot of snake oil selling going on there, too.)

What the New York case brings into stark relief is that anyone in this country can sell anything as a nutritional supplement and market it as a specific remedy or preventative, with no testing or evidence to support the claims.

How is this legal? Because it’s legal. Not like this kind of thing wasn’t happening already, but a 1994 federal law specifically made it legal. To make all sorts of unverified claims for a product, all supplement sellers need to do is tack on this Food and Drug Administration disclaimer: “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.”

That’s it. No state or federal government agency needs to investigate the product, either for safety or efficacy. The FDA only investigates a nutritional supplement when problems are reported. By that time, consumers of the product may be very sick. Or even dead.

But a product that doesn’t kill you or make you sick is fine. Even when, as we have now learned from the New York case, the product does not contain the allegedly “active” ingredients it is supposed to. Again, there is no federal oversight or inspection ensuring these supplements contain the ingredients they claim to. Unless, of course, people start getting sick or dying.

The government tells supplement sellers, “We trust you, so don’t do anything bad.” Supplement sellers, in turn, rely on their “trusted” suppliers to accurately list the ingredients that should go on the label that carries the seller’s brand. If you take nutritional supplements, these nod-and-a-wink relationships between suppliers, sellers and the FDA are the only things protecting you.

Not only may the product you think you are buying be ineffective for the purpose for which you are buying it. And not only may it not contain any of the key ingredient(s) you are buying it for. It might also contain unlisted ingredients that you are deathly allergic to.

How did this happen? I think there is a direct line from the beginnings of the alternative health movement to now (and it encompasses the nutso anti-vaccine movement as well). After World War II, our culture embraced the primacy of science as never before. Anything old-fashioned and not scientifically validated was discredited. Like breast feeding and midwifery, for instance. When it came to folk wisdom and remedies, it’s true: we threw the baby out with the bathwater.

The counterculture of the 60s and the 70s changed that. As with the examples cited above, there was plenty of justification to argue that there were products and practices outside of establishment medicine that might have a benefit.

But, again, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead of saying, “Well, yeah, some of these substances and practices may have merit after all, but we should test them to find out,” we said, “Screw testing! Screw validation! We’ve already seen that establishment medicine is biased. Anything might be possible! Anything might be true!”

As some of us UT grads learned in Professor Rory Coker’s wonderful course on pseudoscience, “Anything might be possible” and “Anything might be true” are key rhetorical weapons in the huckster’s arsenal. (See: Earmarks of Pseudoscience, by Prof. Coker.)

What savvy business man or woman wouldn’t be attracted to a market where “anything might be true,” and no one was bothering to check what was true and what wasn’t in any case? Is it any wonder that nutritional supplements eventually became a mainstream, billion dollar business?

So, in the early 90s, after huge numbers of consumers had already been defrauded and/or sickened, Congress finally decided to act. But by then, the horse was already out of the barn and too much money was at stake. The industry by then was big enough to throw a lot of money around for lobbying and campaign contributions. And once it got what it it was after, it would have even more money to spend.

Thus the industry got the law that it wanted. Now it can make virtually any claims for its products—so long as it also disclaims those claims. And it can stuff anything it wants in its capsules—so long as it doesn’t get caught. And if there are any penalties for being caught, I for one certainly don’t expect them to be severe enough to deter future abuse.

You think supplements made big money before? Whoa, daddy. Look at them now.

Like I said, I’m in the wrong business. Walmart, Target, GNC and Walgreens? They’re in the right business.

See also, NYT: What’s In Those Supplements?