Gugliotta Sizes Up Supplement Industry's Defense of Ephedra

December 28, 2000

4 Min Read
Gugliotta Sizes Up Supplement Industry's Defense of Ephedra

WASHINGTON--On Christmas Day, the Washington Post published an article by staff writer and recent industry watchdog Guy Gugliotta about how the dietary supplement industry has expanded its political influence, using its defense of ephedra as an example. "Dietary Supplement Makers Flex Muscle; $15 Billion Industry Fends Off Attempts to Regulate Ephedra Over Health Risks" presents statistics on the industry's size and growing political contributions, as well as its lobbyists and friends in Congress. "Unlikely Allies Aid Industry; Harkin, Hatch Are Supplement Users" provides details about how Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) came to work together in support of the supplement industry.

Gugliotta juxtaposed the image of a high-priced industry lobbyist taking on a lone opponent, a retired cop and father of a man who died after taking ephedra, at a hearing on the herb in New Jersey in July 2000. This image of the supplement Goliath as too big for even David is the prevailing theme of the Post article. "The industry has become a $15.7 billion behemoth that has stalled, softened or killed outright all efforts to restrict the use of ephedra, linked by state and federal officials to heart and nervous system damage," wrote Gugliotta.

He reported that the industry has become a bully on the strength of its high-paid lobbyists and increasing campaign contributions to politicians friendly to supplements, most notably Sens. Hatch and Harkin. Gugliotta noted that major dietary supplement companies, including leading ephedra marketers Herbalife International and Starlight International, have contributed heavily to both senators' campaigns. The article further stated that the supplement industry spent more than $4 million in Texas, where one of the earliest threats to ephedra was fought.

California Governor Gray Davis (D) was also a beneficiary of big contributions, according to Gugliotta, including $.1 million coming from Metabolife, which ranked fourth in the state in "soft money," according to the report. Some critics cried foul over Davis' vetoing a heavily amended September bill that would have required consumer to notify companies of any possible adverse effects. However, Davis spokesperson Steve Maviglio was quoted in the Post article as saying, "There is no connection between contributions and decisions on bills." Davis had said he thought it the responsibility of U.S. Congress to regulate ephedra. Gugliotta highlighted many other instances involving politicians related to the ephedra initiative in California, noting various campaign contributions at key points in timeline of the bill.

"Money equals power" continued to be the theme of this article, as Gugliotta reported that Steven Mister, vice president and general counsel for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), has long been key in the industry's lobby against ephedra regulation. According to Gugliotta, the supplement industry only had a minimum political apparatus in 1995, but was spending $1.8 million on federal lobbying alone by 1999. He noted that this equals spending by liquor companies and is twice that spent by fertilizer manufacturers. He did not elaborate on how those efforts or federal needs of these two industries (liquor and fertilizer) relate to those of the supplement industry. However, he did elaborate on how the supplement industry is flexing its new-found muscles.

"In a typical show of force, the industry sent three panels of experts to discredit the [Food and Drug Administration (FDA)] case information on ephedra at a public hearing hosted by the Office of Women's Health," wrote Gugliotta. He added that the industry paid travel expenses for 31 "disciples" who attested to the great benefit they received from ephedra supplementation. He wrote that supporters of tighter regulation of ephedra mustered a meager showing relative to the turnout by the industry, including only one panelist from FDA and two sufferers of adverse events involving ephedra.

The industry's "show of force" does not stop there, as Gugliotta pointed out that high profile advertisements meant to sway public opinion, grass-roots letter-writing campaigns to pressure government agencies and rapid response to negative media reports are all weapons in the industry's arsenal. "They always had people who believed in supplements," said David Kessler, as quoted by Gugliotta. "Combine that with the billions of dollars the industry has today, and you get a monumental lobbying force." Kessler was the FDA Commissioner when Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.

Belief in supplements is just what led Sens. Hatch and Harkin to become strong supporters of the industry in Congress. Hatch, whose constituent state is full of supplement supporters, had started taking supplements before he joined the Senate in 1976. Harkin reportedly cured his allergies with bee pollen and takes antioxidants for his heart. Both senators still support the industry and are actually supporters of most FDA endeavors, according to Gugliotta, but have blamed the FDA for both failing to effectively handle DSHEA mandates and for harboring hostility towards the supplement industry. "After six years, the delay is unconscionable," stated Hatch, in the article. Hatch said FDA used flawed data in its case against ephedra, adding that any dosage limits imposed by FDA on ephedra consumption "must be based on science rather than politics."

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