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Supplements spiked with drugs: perennial headlines and predictable responses

Study finds drugs in hundreds of supplement and the industry’s standard response is substandard.

The adage holds that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. For the supplement industry, however, a more apt version would be “reading the same headline over and over again."

The headline in the Washington Post last week was “Diet, weight loss and sex supplements tainted with unapproved drugs," and some variation of that alert ran in countless news outlets. All of them were in reference to a study published by the California Department of Food and Agriculture that identified 776 adulterated supplements from 146 different companies containing pharmaceutical ingredients–including Viagra. Predictably, nearly 90 percent of them fell into the sports, sex and weight loss categories.

It’s one of those stories that’s simultaneously shocking and not surprising. I’ve seen this story before. I’ve written this story before. Break open enough tablets and capsules in the suspect categories, and you’ll find prescription drugs. Put those findings in a study and you’ll get headlines, as you should.

That this rendition of the story made it into the Journal of the American Medical Association raises the profile some, but for anybody who’s been paying attention it becomes a matter of different study, same results, same responses. We’ve certainly seen Harvard doctor and vocal supplement critic Pieter Cohen’s name attached to these kinds of stories before, and so it was in this instance when JAMA gave him space for a guest editorial. We’ve heard the trade associations declare that the products are drugs, not supplements.

It’s all so maddeningly familiar–shocking, but not surprising.

I would like to be surprised. I would like to see the FDA step up with better enforcement. I would like to see better transparency imposed on the players that hide behind internet ads and shady marketing. The Council for Responsible Nutrition’s efforts with the National Advertising Division is laudable, but the results could be more declarative. CRN answered the headlines last week with a public service announcement offering tips on how to avoid supplements adulterated with pharmaceuticals, but I’d like to see the trade associations coordinate a robust education program that keeps the awareness of this issue going when it’s not in the news. We couldn’t find the latest headlines that addressed this issue on websites for the United Natural Products Alliance, the Natural Products Association and the American Herbal Products Association.

The leaders of the industry are doing the right things and saying the right things, but are they actually leading the industry? Or are they simply defending it?

The good players versus bad players dialogue is valid, but it’s largely a conversation at trade shows and not in the public realm. That conversation needs to be had not only at a higher volume and profile, it also needs to be more detailed and in-depth to the point of calling out the suspect categories and suspect companies. We’ve remarked on several occasions that “you can’t say you’re cleaning house if you’re not willing to show the dirt.” “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is” sounds vague because it is vague.

As loud and explicit as the house cleaning and call outs might be, such efforts are unlikely to solve the problem entirely. But this is no reason to not try harder.

Reading the same headlines and expecting different results is insanity. Reading the same headlines and responding the same way is closer to complicity.

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