Indian Herbal Viagra

Plagued by Herbal Frauds

Herbal frauds are everywhere, trying to tap into the magical thinking of people feeling that their weight and their health are out of control. This week the attorneys general of 14 states asked Congress to investigate the safety of herbal supplements and to consider giving the FDA more power to regulate them.

Talk about magical thinking.

It is the U.S. Congress that created this problem when they passed the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act of 1994. In a remarkably effective grassroots campaign, the supplements industry rallied fears that FDA would take away America’s vitamins if Congress did not act. Then President Bill Clinton signed the act into law, saying that it would “bring common sense to the treatment of dietary supplements under regulation and law.”

More magical thinking.

The reality of the law is that it shifted the burden of proof for any fraud or danger from dietary supplements onto the public. Supplement makers were given wide latitude to put whatever they wanted into their products without proving first that the ingredients are safe. They are allowed to make health claims without proving they are true. All they have to do is put a disclaimer on their products and their ads, saying that FDA has not approved the claim and that the product is not intended to “diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

Most often this disclaimer comes right after fantastic claims about preventing or curing health problems.

FDA can only take action against dietary supplements for safety problems after the fact — after people are hurt or killed by a bad product. Consumer fraud is left to the Federal Trade Commission and state law enforcement officials. Again, enforcement only comes after the fact.

The current focus on these supplements started with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issuing subpoenas to GNC, Walgreens, Walmart, and Target when he found that herbal products they were selling did not contain their labeled ingredients. GNC this week reached an agreement this week to resume selling the products after they agreed to implement more stringent quality control procedures. The other three retailers have not yet resolved the complaint.

The New York action has no impact on fantastic, unsupported claims for supplements. In a recent fact sheet for health professionals, the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements provides information on 19 common ingredients promoted for weight loss. None of these ingredients has been shown to be safe and effective for weight loss. Some of them have been proven to be ineffective. Some of them have been shown to be unsafe.

For some people, vitamin and mineral supplements are needed to correct a nutritional problem. Rarely if ever, though, will an herbal product fix a significant health problem.

That’s why it says on the label that these products will not “diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

Click here to read more about the call for Congress to investigate, here to read about the GNC settlement, and here for the NIH fact sheet on weight loss supplements.

Indian Herbal Viagra, photograph © Bobinson K B / flickr

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2 Responses to “Plagued by Herbal Frauds”

  1. April 04, 2015 at 6:18 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    The power and peril of the optimism bias?

    I can’t resist posting on what is one of my favorite TED Talks (nb: I would put “Ted Kyle” talks in a different category….!):

    Thanks, Ted!


    • April 04, 2015 at 5:42 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks for the link, Joe!