Health Supplements and an Epidemic of Ignorance

Haven't seen Sicko yet, but just saw part of  "Freedom on Trial," a documentary by, a group that believes FDA is harming the public by preventing manufacturers from promoting the specific health benefits of vitamins and supplements.  They make some good points.  After all, who would argue against pregnant women taking folic acid supplements. At a time when even Big Pharma is urging the need for preventive medicine, StopFDA's message is getting more attention, even in Congress, where the House has introduced a bill that would allow manufacturers to promote specific health benefits on supplement labels. (Click here to view the clip, introduced by actor Terrence McNally, of Mork and Mindy, Dynasty and Love Boat fame and here for an excellent overview of the film and its promoters by Kary Grens of New Scientist.) Manufacturers of supplements and advocates such as Dr. Julian ("I am not a quack") Whitaker, a licensed physician and member of the AMA, and a supporter of chelation therapies and use of Human Growth Hormone as anti-aging treatment, demand that FDA allow the benefits of folic acid, omega-3 fatty acids, palmetto oil, glucosamine, and other supplements to be advertised.  To understand why FDA isn't doing this, consider what is going on in AIDS-ravaged Africa. An outstanding article, "Epidemic of Ignorance" by Marco Evers, published last month in Der Spiegel, brought up a lot of good reasons for caution. Yahya Jammeh,  the president of Gambia, allegedly believes that he can cure AIDS through a combination of magic and herbal potions(but only on certain days of the week.) In South Africa,  the local press reports that unregulated supplements are becoming a huge problem, and anti-pharma propoganda may be turning people against proven antiretroviral cures. And one of the biggest proponents of supplements in that region is Dr. Matthias Rath, a self-described disciple of Linus Pauling's, who claims to have clinically researched the healing properties of vitamins (click here for more, although his web biography doesn't mention his med school alma mater).   Rath, who just won a libel case against the British Medical Journal, is known for taking out pricey full-page ads in key newspapers making statements against the pharmaceutical industry and antiretroviral AIDs treatments. (For a recent article in The Guardian on Rath,  click here).  This all begs the question: Is FDA violating free speech in limiting supplement promotion? Or is it protecting consumers from the potentially unlimited promotion of snake oil from all over the world? We've already seen problems with some recent supplements imported from China, and we don't even know what's being sold over the Internet. How could the Agency regulate this huge number of products, when it could not ensure their safety? No one could dispute the wisdom of much folk medicine, and the fact that foods and supplements can be extremely helpful, but until there is clear independent evidence of clinical effects, promotion of supplements is best done by physicians (e.g. by prescribing folic acid supplements to pregnant patients), and by parents and tribal elders.   For instance, honey has  antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties, as I learned when a babysitter from Uzbekistan suggested that I use a honey compress to treat one child's sore vaccination site.  I was extremely skeptical, but it helped a great deal. Does that mean that labels for honey should tout that property?  Where would it all end? Last year, blogger Derek Lowe suggested that Rath et al do some clinical trials, in a face-off vs. Big Pharma moderated by the World Health Organization or another authoritative third party, to prove their points.  Hear, hear. Perhaps might help seek funding for one of these trials? -AMS
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  • <p>All in the name of product development, companies are willing to spend time and money just to make sure they will be ahead of the game. These firms are not dumb enough to spend into something if they know they won't get something back. - <a href="">Dr. Naveed Fazlani</a> </p>


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