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Industry suggests latest supplement headline is a poison-pen report

Supplement industry organizations call a study claiming increased supplement-related poison control center inquiries more alarmist than alarming.

A study claiming a rise in calls to U.S. poison control centers because of dietary supplements is faulty in design and misleading in tone, industry experts say.

The study, published July 24 in the Journal of Medical Toxicology, reported supplement-related calls rose by 49 percent from 2005 to 2012, with 275,000 calls from 2000 through 2012. In a press release announcing the study, the first paragraph alleges that U.S. poison control centers receive a call “every 24 minutes, on average, regarding dietary supplement exposures.”

Despite the alarmist language, the risk, as trade groups and others in the industry routinely contend, is quite low. In the 2015 Annual Report of the American Association Control Centers’ National Poison Data System, “vitamins” are noted as the 13th highest category “most frequently involved in human exposures.”  A grouped category of “dietary supplements/herbals/homeopathic” comes in at 20th place, just ahead of “plants.” In contrast, drugs account for five of the top 10 categories, with pain relievers at the top, representing nearly 10 percent of calls.

But the real issue with the study could be in what it ignores, not what it reports, says Andrea Wong, vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutritionion.  In reporting a rise in the number of supplement-related calls, Wong says, the study doesn’t take into account a rise in the number of products available and a rise in the number of people who use them. “There are some very fundamental issues with the study,” Wong says.

The misguided math extends beyond such basics, according to a statement from Supplement Safety Solutions, a company providing risk management and adverse event reporting services. The statement holds that “the majority of these 'exposure calls' are for inquiries that do not even involve actual adverse events,” and are instead calls from parents concerned about possible exposures. The statement goes on to explain that even if there is a call regarding dietary supplements every 24 minutes, that is overwhelmingly eclipsed by calls regarding prescription and OTC drugs coming in every 11 seconds.

With more than half of all calls involving a small child, common sense also enters the equation. In that light, it becomes an access issue and not an ingredient issue. “We recommend that parents keep their supplements in a safe location,” Wong says.

Misstatements regarding basic regulations suggest additional misunderstanding of dietary supplements, Wong says, noting that in the study’s introduction, the authors contend that dietary supplements don’t require clinical data to support disease claims. Researchers investigating dietary supplements should know that such claims are clearly prohibited by Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, known as DSHEA, she says. “That’s regulations 101.”

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