December was not a good month to be the truth squad for the dietary supplement industry:
- Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) announced it was banning supplements for patients. (In fact, the new hospital policy is hardly a ban on supplements at all, just an opportunity to dissuade people from using them.)
- A guest editorial in The New York Times cautioned us to stop taking supplements. (The piece was full of half-truths and misstatements.)
- An editorial in The Annals of Internal Medicine advised consumers that multivitamins are a waste of money, spawning similar headlines across the country. (The editorial completely misinterpreted three studies that also appeared in the journal, which collectively make the case for even more research on potential benefits.)
- A front-page USA TODAY article asked why the supplement industry seems to attract criminals as executives. (The facts were factually accurate, but misleading by allowing a few fringe players to become the poster children for the responsible industry).
- Another New York Times article raised concerns about the increasing number of liver toxicities allegedly tied to supplement usage. (The piece overlooked that 80 percent of injuries studied came from prescription drugs, and that while the majority of American adults use at least one dietary supplement, the injuries investigated account for a miniscule percentage of those users.)
All this on the eve of 2014the year when the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) reaches its milestone 20th birthday.
Whats most concerning is this barrage of negative press might give Congress a reason to consider rewriting this watershed legislation. Policy in Washington is cyclical anyway: if its been 20 years since Congress addressed an issue, its fair game to re-examine it for further tinkering. Priming the pump with bad press might be enough to get DSHEA back on the radar.
Milestone events are also a perfect time for some introspection. A lot has changed in the dietary supplement industry since 1994: the remarkable growth in size and number of companies, the advent of the Internet for sales and promotion,the breadth of new ingredients and delivery forms in the market, changes in how we make health care decisions, and the mainstreaming of supplement use, to name a few. At the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), we are poised to capitalize on the anniversary. Here are some things we are doing:
Fighting the negative mediaHopefully, youve seen CRN hard at work, serving as the industry voice in many of the articles, following up with letters to the editor, and even an op-ed in USA TODAY. We continue to take on the detractors, point out the misinformation and aggressivelybut respectfullypress our point of view to give consumers the full story.
Preparing long-term responses to our detractorsWe provide a variety of resources to the industry. Background papers, talking points and press releases are just a few of the ways CRN members get critical information to respond to their customers concerns and defend the regulation from critics.
Funding research that supports supplement scienceThis fall, the CRN Foundation released a new study by Frost & Sullivan, Smart PreventionHealth Care Cost Savings Resulting from the Targeted Use of Dietary Supplements," which examined how selected supplement regimens can reduce direct medical costs associated with certain diseases. We have also begun plans for new scientific research through grants from the CRN Foundation. If the recent press has taught us one thing, its that having rigorous science for the safety and benefits of supplements is the best rebuttal.
Shoring up Congressional alliesIn 1994, Sens. Orin Hatch (R-UT) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) co-sponsored DSHEA; now both are in the twilight of their careers. But were not wringing our hands at CRN. We stepped up our efforts to educate Congress about the scientific benefits of dietary supplements in this new era of proactive prevention, we draw attention to the economic contributions of our industry through jobs and taxes, and we focus efforts on Congressional committees with jurisdiction over FDA. With more than two-thirds of adults in this country taking dietary supplements, we understand that our industry is bi-partisan, and our consumers are passionate.
Asking ourselves tough questions about what level of regulation is appropriate under DSHEAAnother lesson learned is that regulation, like science, is never final. As the industry has changed, FDA may need new or different tools. We helped amend DSHEA in 2006 with the adverse event reporting (AER) law, we applauded the issuance of GMPs (good manufacturing practices), and recent enhancements to FDA from the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) will allow FDA to move more decisively in the event of public safety concerns. We dont believe in more regulation for the sake of imposing more burdens on responsible industry (particularly when those proposals dont protect our consumers from unscrupulous behavior of the fringe elements of this industry, and may diminish access to our products), but we recognize the industry has to remain open-minded as well as vigilant about the state of regulation.
Helping consumers become savvierIn the last 20 years, more consumers have discovered the health benefits of dietary supplements. Like all industries, reputable companies must aid their customers in identifying those brands that are thoughtfully formulated, well-manufactured, and responsibly marketed.
As we enter this twentieth year since DSHEA, its a good time for everyone to ask: what will you be bringing to the party?
Steve Mister is president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN).
Originally published in INSIDERs January/February print issue.