It strikes me as a bit hypocritical when a leading conservative legislator, a proponent of limiting “big government” and a critic of government’s competency, holds a press conference along with a handful of sports celebrities and announces the need for additional legislation which further regulates the dietary supplement industry. But then again, Senator John McCain is a puppet of the pharmaceutical interests.


So McCain has introduced a bill called the Dietary Supplement Safety Act of 2010. Sounds like a good idea by the name, huh? What most disinterested citizens don’t realize is that there is already good legislation in place which provides the safety standards for which McCain is concerned about.

First, McCain parades out a host of athletes to draw attention to the problem of illegal steroid abuse. The fact is under the current laws the FDA has complete and total authority to impede illegal steroid use, but according to many insiders, the FDA is overwhelmed and underfunded. Sure, steroids make a great headline but illegal steroid use is not as serious a problem as, say food supply safety (food borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year) or accelerated drug development. According to the Alliance for Natural Health, “if the agency were doing its job, it could and would have prevented the sale of illegal steroids. The answer to this problem is not to give FDA more power. The Agency simply needs to do its job.”  

Furthermore, there are already several ideas which are under review which would help tighten any abuse in the supplement industry, including a 2009 GAO report which has provided excellent guidance. While McCain’s bill highlights adverse event reporting (AER), supplement companies are currently required to submit AER’s to the FDA.

But if you put this issue in context, the whole safety issue falls short. Between 1993 and 1998, FDA reported only 2,621 “adverse reactions,” including 184 fatalities for all dietary supplements sold. As for drugs, each year more than 2 million people in the United States are hospitalized or injured, including more than 100,000 fatalities. Even OTC medications which seem harmless, medications long regulated and approved by the FDA, kill more people than any dietary supplement ever has. In any given year, Tylenol® (acetaminophen) is responsible for more than 14,000 unintentional overdoses, with about 100 of those cases resulting in death.

It’s only when you look a little deeper do you catch wind of what’s really going on behind the hyperbole and scare tactics. You see, McCain’s bill would essentially have dietary supplements, which are natural compounds found in foods and supplemented into the diet, to have similar requirements to those of pharmaceutical drugs. Other “foods” aren’t even required to report adverse events. “[This bill] places new burdens on dietary supplements that are not required for any other class of food,” noted Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA).  “…it appears to be more stringent than retailer requirements under current drug laws.” No, what this legislation is intended to do is to place dietary supplements in the same category as drugs…illegal drugs.

McCain’s bill will certainly help protect the pharmaceutical industry from those peddlers of health! In fact, what this legislation will do is to further discourage nutritional supplement research & development and likely may lead to arbitrary FDA bans on new nutritional supplements. Where new nutritional research shows promise, the supplements may be co-opted by drug companies in a way that precludes its sale as a supplement. When that happens, we can all pay exponentially more for these nutritional supplements and watch Drug Company profits fatten even more.

Perhaps you know the adage “You Spot It, You Got It” (a take on the old “you smelt it, you dealt it”). This seems to apply to so much of the right wing political rhetoric these days. I have learned to be very cautious when politicians tell me the reasons why they are promoting an issue; it tends to be the complete opposite is true.