Why Tolerate Magic Weight Loss Scams?
As a matter of policy, FDA tolerates magic weight loss scams. They really don’t have much choice. Unlike prescription or over-the-counter drugs, FDA was effectively stripped of the power to regulate any claims of effectiveness for dietary supplements by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. Supplement marketers can make any claims they want about promoting healthy function of the body, so long as they include a disclaimer that the product “is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”
So the pretense is that miracle weight loss supplements don’t treat obesity, they just magically boost your metabolism and help you lose weight fast, without dieting — according to the claims their marketers make. Good thing they don’t have to prove them to be true.
Supplement makers only face two constraints. If their products start to visibly harm people, then FDA can act. The bar for this is pretty high — liver failure and deaths were the situations that caused recalls in past years. The second constraint comes from the Federal Trade Commission. In cases of obvious consumer fraud, the FTC can impose substantial penalties. The problem here is that, with bogus products all around, the FTC has to pick their battles carefully for maximum impact with their limited resources.
So we are grateful this week that the Obesity Society, the Obesity Action Coalition, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the Obesity Medicine Association issued a joint statement calling for reform of the dietary supplement regulations. Steven Smith, Past President of the Obesity Society, said:
While we acknowledge that there may be effective dietary supplements on the market, there is a clear need for long-term data showing the benefits, safety and effectiveness for these unregulated treatments claiming weight management.
This statement comes right after a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that dietary supplements send more than 23,000 people, including many children, to emergency departments. More than 2,000 hospitalizations result.
Consumers mistakenly believe that such products wouldn’t be on the shelves of drug stores if they were really unsafe or ineffective. Maybe it’s time for policymakers to live up to their responsibility to the public, instead of serving the people who sell these scams.
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October 22, 2015