(Im)Potent Potions

Selling Magic Weight Loss Potions

The U.S. Justice Department has filed a criminal indictment against two dietary supplement companies that were selling magic weight loss products and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in sales with them. These products have two problems: they don’t work and they contain substances that are illegal because of the danger they present to human health.

The real problem here is the fuzzy regulation of dietary supplements. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), it’s perfectly legal for shady operators to sell questionable products and make unsubstantiated health claims, so long as they include a disclaimer that is widely ignored:

This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

The FDA, the FTC, and the Justice Department are then left to chase the worst offenders after the fact. FDA must look for people who are selling adulterated products. FTC goes after egregious cases of consumer fraud. Justice goes after criminal violations. It’s a big game of whack-a-mole, played by federal agencies with inadequate resources for the scope of the problem.

Besides victimizing vulnerable consumers who fall prey to magical thinking, this kind of loose regulation winds up harming the reputation of legitimate businesses selling nutritional products to meet real dietary needs. Bariatric surgery patients, who need to take certain vitamins and minerals to prevent well-known complications, illustrate the need of a growing population.

But nobody really needs the green tea extract, for example, that Bayer throws into their WeightSmart One-A-Day vitamins. It’s simply a marketing gimmick that undermines the credibility of an once-respected brand.

Legitimate companies in the nutrition business seem blind to the fundamental flaws in DSHEA that are ruining the reputation of their industry. They mostly blame the feds for not chasing the bad guys hard enough.

Just like whack-a-mole, the game is rigged to favor the bad guys. The rules need to change.

Click here to read more from Vox and here to read more from the Obesity Society.

(Im)Potent Potions, photograph © / flickr

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November 24, 2015

2 Responses to “Selling Magic Weight Loss Potions”

  1. November 24, 2015 at 9:57 am, Allen Browne said:

    The third problem is they cost money and are paid for by those least able to pay.

    • November 24, 2015 at 10:08 am, Ted said:

      You are right about that, Allen. Scams always hurt people who have the least to spare. Scarcity fosters magical thinking.