The importance of being earnest

As the father of two boys and the president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), I often find myself working late into the night to juggle the various demands of my personal and professional lives. Late-night TV reruns are frequently my companions for 'background noise' to break the silence of the sleeping house. These are followed by the latest infomercials with their promises of perfectly chopped vegetables, better skin and six-pack abs. Perhaps by now I should be used to these eccentric ads, yet I still become angry when I see or hear an ad for a supplement product that makes claims that I know can't possibly be true.

Federal law requires that all consumer advertising be truthful, not misleading and substantiated by credible evidence. In addition, a sense of responsibility to our customers — not to mention personal ethics — mandates that we, as an industry, be earnest as we endeavor to sell products that people put into their bodies to maintain and improve their health. We cannot allow our industry to be overrun by claims that defy belief, common sense and science.

The vast majority of us who work in the supplements industry want to respond proudly when asked what we do for a living. We want to be associated with the real health benefits of legitimate, scientifically backed products ? and disassociated with products that illegally claim to cure cancer or tell viewers they can lose 30 pounds in 30 days just by popping a pill. I truly believe that the single greatest threat to the dietary-supplements industry stems from the outrageous claims made by a few companies that consumers associate with the entire category. Many people who see these outlandish ads will reject the category entirely, believing it to be full of 'snake oil.' And I also believe that as an industry we can fight back.

In 2006, the CRN launched a programme to give consumers added confidence in the truthfulness of dietary-supplement advertising, help remove outrageous supplement claims from the media, and create a fair and transparent process that will support the efforts of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The CRN announced a series of grants to the National Advertising Division (NAD), a branch of the Better Business Bureaus. Over three years, these grants allow the NAD to increase its annual caseload for reviewing supplements ads from seven (on average) to more than 30. Through this forum, anyone can file challenges to supplements advertising; supplements companies are especially encouraged to do so.

It's critical to the industry's future that supplements companies embrace this self-regulatory effort. It is my hope that companies will file challenges against the most egregious advertisers — not only as a means to bring competitors in line, but more importantly, to focus the NAD's attention on those companies whose advertising is so beyond the boundaries of credibility that their very existence blemishes the entire industry.

This is an earnest programme to clean up supplements advertising — but there is another potential benefit. Recently, the NAD was reviewing an ad for a supplement, and at the same time, a consumer group filed a complaint with the FTC about the same ad. The NAD determined that most of what was said in the ad was truthful, and the advertiser voluntarily agreed to modify the claims that did raise concerns for the NAD. And so far, the FTC has stayed on the sidelines. So in this case, the advertiser may have actually avoided a full-blown FTC investigation because it was able to change the ad based on the NAD review.

Perhaps what this programme most importantly does is to give the dietary-supplements industry the power to police ourselves. It says this is a grown-up industry that takes responsibility for its actions. This programme will help to address the outrageous claims more quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively than investigations by the FTC; it will level the playing field for all dietary- supplements companies; and it will increase consumer confidence in supplements advertising. Our consumers are our No. 1 priority. Without them, we wouldn't have an industry.

What are you doing to protect them when syndicated reruns turn into late night infomercials for night owls like me?

Steve Mister is president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Functional Ingredients or the editor. If you would like to respond or to contribute an opinion piece, please contact [email protected]

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