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The dietary supplement industry: Thrive or survive?

Article-The dietary supplement industry: Thrive or survive?

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Organic & Natural Health Association CEO Karen Howard reflects on becoming engaged in elections and other issues in helping to shape the future of the natural products industry.

Next summer will mark my 40th year in Washington, D.C. Each one of them has had me playing a role in politics. The outcome of my efforts has varied from celebratory to crushing. I hail from the days when House Republicans and Democrats collaborated across the aisle, reserving any acrimony for the Senate and its lack of rules. I’ve lobbied from the inside as staff of what was then called the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service, on the outside as a lobbyist and as an individual advocate. It is true. Personality-driven politics are today’s norm on Capitol Hill. And the rules and processes of the Hill are too frequently disregarded, which is abhorrent to this disciple of Robert’s Rules of Order. Like many of us, I find myself in despair when it comes to Capitol Hill. Still, there is much work to be done and only so many ways to affect change. It would be short-sighted for any industry to abandon all hope, especially the dietary supplement industry, even in the face of what can feel like a Herculean task.

One must ask, why isn’t politics working for us? First of all, this isn’t 1994. Yet we are comfortable with our old certitudes, and we act from a defensive posture to “protect” what we have. If the statistic is correct and 85% of all Americans use dietary supplements, one can conclude 85% of Hill staff and U.S. lawmakers also use supplements. Yet, there are no “champions,” only sympathizers. Equally importantly, our industry has changed dramatically.

The passage of DSHEA (the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994) was doable because of our consumers, and the retailers they frequented to buy the brands they cherished. Our grassroots origin story shone brightly before a Congress that worked to earn the support of voters. We are no longer that collection of independent companies. Many of our successful brands have been purchased by pharmaceutical companies, a fact we celebrate as an indicator of industry success. We never pause to consider the change in our culture and its political impact. It would be inaccurate to state dietary supplements are not impacted by the passage of PDUFA (the Prescription Drug User Fee Act) when in fact several brands are owned by key stakeholders in that conversation. In fact, pharma influence in our industry could reflect the crux of our trade association disagreements regarding the mandatory product listing requirement that FDA has proposed for dietary supplement products. At a minimum, “pharma” is no longer the universal bogeyman to battle. One thing is certain. There are disagreements “in the family.” Gone are the days when the trade associations, practitioner groups and grassroots advocates would sit at the Coalition to Preserve DSHEA and agree, even if it meant agreeing to disagree.

What is an industry to do with a Congress that hasn’t allowed Hill lobby days for over two years, restricts organized email access and is heavily reliant on PACs (political action committees) to fund their overpriced races in highly gerrymandered districts? The human race is always more effective when we work to find a solution, an answer to a problem. We need a bigger, better problem to solve. As the second-most regulated category of foods, we have an assortment of topics to select from.

Issue one: Going solo, especially in a fractured industry, will not often lead to a successful outcome for all parties.

Solution: Find a big issue that requires a novel solution created by like-minded people and organizations.

Example: The President’s Cancer Moonshot, with a goal “to cut cancer death rates by at least 50% in the next 25 years, to turn more cancers from death sentences into chronic diseases people can live with.” This statement is virtually impossible to discern. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cancer Moonshot Day of Action event in August featured “the latest science and resources on food and nutrition, and healthy eating habits to help reduce the risk of cancer and chronic disease.” This is a significant improvement that points to the burgeoning interest in regenerative agriculture, from which all companies in our space should be sourcing and supporting. Collaboration on the subject of regenerative agriculture within the dietary supplement supply chain is a topic Organic & Natural Health Association is deeply involved in, and it affords interesting opportunities for legislative collaboration around core health issues.

Example: White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. Heavily criticized for its lack of planning and rushed implementation, this was designed to be a bipartisan effort that ran somewhat afoul. The White House heavily touted the last such conference resulted in the school lunch program. The likelihood of this year’s event resulting in significant change is low, and the involvement of our community has been limited. However, who’s to say that we can’t create similar conversations with like-minded organizations that are apolitical? Who’s to say we can’t go back to the old ways and use congressional receptions to demonstrate the relationship between food, supplements and health? The power of many espousing a common message is far more likely to be successful than the work of one organization.

Issue two: We don’t have the legislative champions we used to have.

Solution: Change how we become engaged in federal and state elections.

Example: Party lines will continue to divide Congress through this next election cycle and into the 2024 elections. Despite media reports relating to the hostility surrounding our political system, the number of candidates filing to run in open Senate, gubernatorial and Attorney General races was extraordinary.

- In 37 open seats for governor, 414 candidates were on the ballot.

- In 33 open seats for the U.S. Senate, 452 candidates were on the ballot.

- And in 29 state Attorney General races, where everyone should be a lawyer, 111 people ran.

Organic & Natural Health surveyed primary candidates in every Senate, gubernatorial and Attorney General race in the country this year. As expected, our response rates were low. However, the open rate ranged from 70% to 90%. For us, it’s the start of being involved at the local level in a new way. We are sharing the information, and lessons learned, with retail and consumer organizations to educate them on candidate positions and to enable the reactivation of the grassroots tools we have been lacking.

Tracking state and federal races over time will enhance our ability to find our modern-day Sens. Tom Harkin and Orrin Hatch. Add to that a concerted effort to run one of our own candidates at any political level, and we might be able to escalate our influence even more quickly. Granted, this is not work for the faint of heart. And it will only work when our own leadership unites, with financial backing, in the race of a colleague. The current congressional leadership can’t live forever! We are entering a different era, and we will continue to see more young people engaged in the political process. This is an idea worthy of our conversation, as well as a subject to raise with our new strategic partners.

Issue three: Public perception of dietary supplement industry skews with the news.

Solution: Collaborate and define common core messaging for public outreach on the importance of supplementation.

I believe we can all agree messaging must be based on research we can all support and data that support consumer interests. Recently, Nutrition Business Journal published a Microbiome Report that revealed only 25% of consumers consider themselves knowledgeable about their personal gut health. Another 20% reported they are somewhat knowledgeable when they are having a gut issue. Yet 51% stated they are actively working to optimize gut health. Clearly, there is a need for more education.

Vitamin D is another topic with broad-reaching implications and clear data on the health risks associated with vitamin D deficiency. Organic & Natural Health has played a significant leadership role in this vitamin D education effort with our “Get On My Level” campaign, as have others, working with federal agencies and media. Individual companies invest millions in research and education on a host of nutrients that merit a national campaign, especially in this Covid-19 era. Might it be possible to create our own industry calendar and adopt our own nutrient support education schedule? It seems like a good conversation to have with our industry media partners!

There are many more issues that offer a platform for collaboration with the larger world, should our industry seek to do so. Some will elect to never collaborate for a myriad of reasons. Others may be seeking a place to speak respectfully and confidentially. Someone might raise a flag and ask for a conversation about the new threats on the horizon, including synthetic biology, food shortages and our ability to speak openly about supply chain constraints. At this moment in time, Organic & Natural Health is leading those conversations with our members, who represent the entirety of the supply chain, and our partners outside our immediate sphere. We do this because we know that working to keep something from happening, while often a necessary tactic, is a short-term game and gain. Our mission to create a healthy planet for healthy people demands that we take on more.

Karen Howard, CEO and executive director of Organic & Natural Health Association, has spent more than 30 years working with Congress, state legislatures and health care organizations to develop innovative health care policy and programs. She has held a variety of executive positions, including serving as professional staff for a congressional committee, and has policy expertise in the diverse areas of integrative and complementary medicine, managed care, health care technology and mental health. An advocate at heart, she has worked to strategically advance the mission and vision of organizations through effective advocacy and strong collaboration. Prior to Organic & Natural Health, Howard served as executive director for both the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) and the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Schools.

TAGS: Supplements
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