Government Attack on Dietary Supplements Lean on Facts, by Council Nedd

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I’ve never been surprised by the foolish actions of our federal government. Like all things, it follows the laws of nature – and nature abhors a vacuum. If left unchecked, our government behaves similarly, seeking every opportunity to insert itself into any environment it believes is underregulated – warranted or not.

Some federal agencies are more eager to fill vacuums than others. Take, for example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is notorious for routinely overstepping its authority. In particular, it sought to regulate the dietary supplement industry out of existence in the early 1990’s. This led to the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) in 1994 to halt the FDA’s attempts to smother the industry.

Recently, however, the FDA has taken a new tact. Scientists at the University of California at San Francisco were recently commissioned by the FDA to study health problems associated with ephedra – a popular weight-loss supplement – to provide some credibility to the FDA’s vendetta.

By increasing the regulation of and inability to obtain herbal remedies and other dietary supplements, the black community – which has used and relied upon them for generations – stands to lose a lot. But, please understand, all Americans will lose under such rules.

Health care is a $900 billion industry in the United States. Even though the chronically ill are not dying in the streets, many still lack affordable health insurance. Politicians consider improving the health status of Americans to be a high priority. But this urgency seems not to have taken root at the FDA.

Clinical research shows conditions such as cancer and heart disease can be prevented with a healthy diet and lifestyle. Access to dietary supplements can also prevent the need for expensive medical procedures. Over 40% of our population regularly consumes a dietary supplement of some type. Americans want the right to continue using these helpful products. As a black American, I know that echinacea has long been a popular herbal remedy among my family and friends to relieve the symptoms of the common cold and licorice is a common treatment for a variety of gastrointestinal disorders. The FDA is threatening our ability to continue using them.

The FDA now apparently believes that, because a few of the political players have changed, they can resume their plans to eradicate this important industry. The FDA paints a picture of the dietary supplement industry as that of a snake oil salesman hocking tonics and sneaking out of town two steps ahead of the sheriff. This has no basis in fact. To the contrary, dietary supplements are vigorously regulated for safety, quality control and claims in labeling. Before a new product goes to market, a manufacturer must provide the FDA 75 days advance notice and safety information before the product can be sold.

If this is true, why is the FDA attacking products on the market for years and in compliance with the DSHEA?

I believe the FDA’s renewed vigor against dietary supplements may have something to do with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling that the FDA had no authority to regulate tobacco products. In 1996, the FDA decided it was going to challenge a 1938 law limiting its activities. A lawsuit was filed, but the FDA lost.

What is the connection? The FDA, like St. George, is looking for a dragon to slay. It failed with tobacco, so now it is going after dietary supplements. But the FDA will lose again. It is overstepping its bounds.

All this, by the way, occurred during the Clinton Administration. One would think the FDA would have learned something over the past eight years. As in the tobacco ruling, when it was reprimanded for overstepping, it will be reined in again if it persists in attacking dietary supplements. There is a lesson the FDA didn’t learn from the first months of the Clinton Administration – Americans simply don’t like it when people mess with their health care.

(Council Nedd is a member of Project 21 and a political consultant in the Washington, DC area. He can be reached [email protected].)

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