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California health committee advances bill targeting weight loss supplements

Josh Long

January 11, 2024

5 Min Read

At a Glance

  • California is one of several states aiming to limit the sale to minors of OTC diet pills and weight loss supplements.
  • Advocates of the legislation cite a link between eating disorders and use of these products.
  • A New York law restricting the sale of certain supplements to minors is the subject of a recent court challenge filed by NPA.

The health committee of the California State Assembly has passed a bill that would prevent retail establishments from selling to minors dietary supplements for weight loss or OTC diet pills without a prescription.

AB 82 passed Tuesday, Jan. 9, by a vote of 9 to 0 and moved on to the assembly’s judiciary committee.

A similar bill was vetoed in 2022 by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

This month, Assemblymember Akilah Weber, M.D., a Democrat and board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist, introduced AB 82 and offered her support of the bill during Tuesday’s hearing. According to Weber, “well-documented dangers” have been associated with diet pills and weight loss supplements.

The California lawmaker cited studies from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and Stanford University that she said found “individuals using diet pills and laxatives were more likely to be diagnosed with and develop serious eating disorders.”

“Additionally, as noted in this committee analysis, these supplements are regulated as food and therefore do not undergo the rigorous scientific evaluation from FDA that other drugs are subjected to,” Weber said. She added, “Weight loss drugs and supplements have been found to be laced with pesticides, heavy metals, anabolic steroids and pharmaceuticals that can cause strokes, cancers and severe liver injury resulting in transplants—none of which we want our most vulnerable exposed to.”

Kate Rodgers, a junior at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) and director of policy for the student-led advocacy group Generation Up, also supported the bill in written remarks shared at the hearing by another woman.

Rodgers cited the University of Michigan Medical School as reporting that eating disorders in teenagers more than doubled during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Access to weight loss products and diet supplements only makes it easier for young people to fall into dangerous habits,” Rodgers maintained in her testimony. “Not only do these products encourage unhealthy behaviors, they are also unsafe.”

The Natural Products Association (NPA) and other organizations with ties to supplement retailers and manufacturers have denied a nexus exists between eating disorders and supplements. NPA reached this conclusion after filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with FDA to research adverse events involving eating disorders and weight management or muscle building products. Per NPA, none of the FDA data connected such products to eating disorders.

“The proposal under consideration today would place onerous restrictions, most notably on small businesses such as your local pharmacy, convenience or health food store, by prohibiting the sale of popular products,” Kyle Turk, director of government affairs for NPA, concluded, in part, in his written testimony submitted to the health committee but not read aloud at the hearing. “Restricting access to them is unfair to Californians who value health and wellness, hurts responsible retailers, and drains California’s budget through lost sales taxes. Nobody wins.”

Another trade organization, the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), removed its opposition to a similar bill (AB 1341) introduced a few years ago by then-Assemblymember Christina Garcia, according to Anthony Samson, a lobbyist who appeared at the hearing on behalf of CRN.

AB 1341 was vetoed by Newsom, which Samson said was unfortunate. In his written veto message, Newsom commended Garcia’s work but noted “dietary supplements for weight loss are not considered drugs and, therefore, this measure would require CDPH [California Department of Public Health] to evaluate every individual weight loss and dietary supplement product for safety, which is beyond the scope of the department's capabilities.”

Samson said Newsom in September 2022 convened a working group of CDPH to examine the issues.

“CRN was able to participate as an observer on those discussions and those recommendations were due at the end of last year but have not yet been released,” Samson said during the hearing.

As of publication of this story, CDPH had not responded to a request for comment on the scope of the pending report or when it will be released.

“We believe that there is a way to narrowly tailor this policy that will achieve the goals of the author while ensuring that legitimate, safe and regulated dietary supplements remain available in the marketplace,” Samson said at the hearing, “and that retailers have clear direction from an appropriate public health authority as to which products are affected by the restrictions.”

Weber was asked by a fellow lawmaker if she would be amending the bill, if necessary, after receiving the report from the CDPH. She responded, “We do plan on taking a look at it, amending our bill as necessary once they do finally release it.”

Robert Moutrie, a senior policy advocate with the California Chamber of Commerce, also spoke during the hearing, saying his group was not opposed to the policy in AB 82 but had a narrow concern it wanted to be addressed.

Similar legislation to AB 40 is pending in New Jersey, and a bill was introduced this week in Maryland as well, which would prohibit the sale of diet pills to anyone under the age of 18 without a prescription. Diet pills under the Maryland bill include supplements marketed for achieving weight loss or building muscle.

Meanwhile, a separate bill in New York signed into law in 2023 is the subject of a lawsuit filed by NPA in December. New York Assembly Bill A6510D/Senate Bill S5823C prohibits the sale to minors of OTC diet pills and dietary supplements for weight loss or muscle building.

NPA’s suit alleges the law is unconstitutional on several grounds, including being preempted by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which delegates regulation of dietary supplements to the Food and Drug Administration.

This week, following the vote on AB 82 in California, NPA President and CEO Dan Fabricant issued a statement.

“The NPA has worked in good faith with the California Department of Public Health to educate them on dietary supplement safety, efficacy and regulations,” he said. “As we have seen across the country, there are legislators who ignore the realities of science to promote their agenda.”

In public testimony and correspondence to Newsom and public health officials in California, Fabricant reiterated NPA’s position that “there is not a single data point connecting the use of eating disorders and dietary supplements.”

“If there were, the FDA would be required to remove that product from the market,” he asserted.

About the Author(s)

Josh Long

Associate editorial director, Natural Products Insider, Informa Markets Health and Nutrition

Josh Long directs the online news, feature and op-ed coverage at Natural Products Insider, which targets the health and wellness industry. He has been reporting on developments in the dietary supplement industry for over a decade, with a focus on regulatory issues, including at the Food and Drug Administration.

He has moderated and/or presented at industry trade shows, including SupplySide East, SupplySide West, Natural Products Expo West, NBJ Summit and the annual Dietary Supplement Regulatory Summit.

Connect with Josh on LinkedIn and ping him with story ideas at [email protected]

Education and previous experience

Josh majored in journalism and graduated from Arizona State University the same year "Jake the Snake" Plummer led the Sun Devils to the Rose Bowl against the Ohio State Buckeyes. He also holds a J.D. from the University of Wyoming College of Law, was admitted in 2008 to practice law in the state of Colorado and spent a year clerking for a state district court judge.

Over more than a quarter century, he’s written on various topics for newspapers and business-to-business publications – from the Yavapai in Arizona and a controversial plan for a nuclear-waste incinerator in Idaho to nuanced issues, including FDA enforcement of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA).

Since the late 1990s, his articles have been published in a variety of media, including but not limited to, the Cape Cod Times (in Massachusetts), Sedona Red Rock News (in Arizona), Denver Post (in Colorado), Casper Star-Tribune (in Wyoming), now-defunct Jackson Hole Guide (in Wyoming), Colorado Lawyer (published by the Colorado Bar Association) and Nutrition Business Journal.

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