Case Study In Media Deception: Dietary Supplement Regulation

Dietary supplements

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One of my pet interests is in nutrition, health, personal development, and the like (I’ve actually been blogging about this stuff for three years now over here). A subsection of that interest is in nutritional supplements, which I know far too much about. Some of my friends consider me like a pharmacist of sorts.

My dad, familiar with my interests, sent me this article on Yahoo about how GNC will be making changes to their quality control procedures. Here’s the gist of it:

Earlier this year, the New York State attorney general’s office accused GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens of selling fraudulent herbal supplements, devoid of the ingredients touted on the label and containing potentially harmful contaminants. Now, at least one of the retailers is responding by tightening up their quality control.

Today, GNC will announce that it will be implementing major new testing procedures to make sure its supplements far exceed the standards currently set by the federal government.

“This should be a standard across the entire industry,” Dr. Pieter Cohen, a professor who studies supplements at Harvard Medical School, tells the New York Times. “Today we finally have one first step taken by one retailer, and only after the very aggressive intervention by the New York attorney general’s office.”

In the past, I’ve discussed how the media is used to promote memes that the elite want spread, and this is a perfect demonstration of the principle. Supplements are regulated more like the way food is regulated in America, as opposed to the far more heavily regulated pharmaceutical industry. As such, dietary supplements are vastly cheaper – and Americans are using them in huge numbers. In 2012, the industry took home $32 billion in revenue, and this is projected to increase to $60 billion by 2021.

It is quite clear that the intention of this article is to promote the idea of further regulation of dietary supplements. Feel free to read the article yourself, but the excerpt above is obviously an attempt to make a connection between supplements being unsafe and the government needing to step in to address this. A casual reader of the article will immediately make that connection in their mind: “Uh oh, I take dietary supplements [nearly 70% of Americans do]. I don’t want them to be unsafe – there ought to be a law!”

But the connection is entirely spurious, as one heavily propagandistic statement in the middle of the article should make clear:

Supplements are required to state the name and amount of each and every ingredient they contain — but this practice is more of an “honor code,”and not always abided by.

Supplements are currently regulated under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). Under this law, supplements are in fact required to state the name of every ingredient they contain and the total quantity of ingredients. This is the law. The only reason why the article would say it is “more of an honor code” is to mislead; technically, all laws go by the “honor code” in the sense mentioned here – that they are sometimes broken. Nobody would claim that laws against murder go by the “honor code.” If you murder someone and are caught, the force of the law comes down upon you. Just like for every law.

The article is arguing that because supplement companies have committed fraud, they need tighter regulations. But fraud is already illegal, and there is already a procedure in place for this. From the FDA website linked to above:

FDA is responsible for taking action against any adulterated or misbranded dietary supplement product after it reaches the market.

In other words, current regulations already prohibit fraud. The current regulations have failed to protect consumers, despite their intent.

I am not trying to dispute here that there are problems within the supplement industry. Fraud may very well be rampant, as the article claims. In that case, the fraudsters ought to be punished, and those who were victimized ought to be made whole again.

In addition to fraud, many supplements make bold claims about their potential health benefits, even if there isn’t much credible science to back it up. But it is the responsibility of consumers to separate the good from the bad. No one is coerced into purchasing these supplements. It is easy to do research on these things. Personally, I suggest checking examine.com to find quality scientific research on supplements for free. And by and large, dietary supplements are quite safe (but you should ALWAYS do your own research beforehand).

But I digress. The main point I want to get across in this post is that the media is used as a means of establishing trends on behalf of the elite. Who is it that stands to benefit most from promoting the meme that dietary supplements require stronger regulations? Answer: the pharmaceutical companies, of course!

Dietary supplements are viewed by many Americans as a cheaper alternative to expensive pharmaceuticals. But if they were more heavily regulated, the cost of supplements would skyrocket, and people would no longer have access to cheap substitutes. So that is the first point: eliminating competition. Complying with regulations is expensive, and this makes it vastly more difficult for upstart companies to get a foothold in the industry.

Perhaps even more important is the fact that much of the supplement industry is already owned by the big pharmaceutical companies! In an article on Al Jazeera arguing in favor of supplement regulation, this is confirmed:

Supplement promoters sell themselves as an alternative to big pharma, but giant pharmaceutical firms actually own the bulk of the industry. Pfizer owns Centrum, Bayer owns One a Day, and Procter & Gamble owns supplement maker New Chapter. Even Wall Street is getting in on the action. The Carlyle Group, a private-equity giant, owns NBTY (formerly Nature’s Bounty), and hedge funds are trading on industry players like the Vitamin Shoppe, betting that health-conscious baby boomers and other promising demographics will keep buying.

A 2009 article on Fox News corroborates this:

There are hundreds of small firms, including niche players with only a few products. But they account for a slim slice of total sales, industry experts say.

The Pharma giant Wyeth, for example, makes Centrum and other supplements, and Bayer HealthCare of aspirin fame makes the One A Day line. Unilever, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline and other big pharmaceutical firms also make or sell supplements.

Not only will dietary supplement regulation squeeze out the smaller players in the market, but it will allow the pharmaceutical companies to sell their own supplements for oligopoly prices. And since these giant companies already have the majority share in these sales, you can expect that they will be by far the biggest winners if any new supplement regulations are signed into law.

This whole idea is most surely a promotion by the pharmaceutical industry, which has a massive lobby. In the 2014 election cycle, the industry spent nearly $14.8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And in the combined election cycles between 1990 and 2014, they spent over $163 million. Contrast this with the lobbying for the nutritional supplement industry. In 2014, they spent just over $1 million. And since 1990, they have spent a paltry $15.3 million.

And pharmaceutical companies are known to be aggressive marketers. In particular, they are shifting to a more heavy online advertising presence, as you can see in the graph.

pharmaceutical-advertising-spending

If my powers of deduction and knowledge of how the world works are correct, you can expect to see many more articles published in major online news sources calling for increased regulation of the dietary supplement industry.

Crony capitalism at its finest!

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