Herbals making deceptive health claims, GAO finds

Published May 26, 2010 7:23 pm

Phony cures? » Hatch finds fault with probe.
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Some people who sell and make dietary supplements are breaking the law by claiming popular herbals can cure or treat a disease such as cancer or Alzheimer's, according to a new study commissioned by a Senate panel.

In reaction, five major supplement associations promised a new effort to ensure retailers stay within the guidelines when pitching products.

"We take this revelation seriously," said Steve Mister, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, in his written comments to the Senate Special Committee on Aging. "We will increase our efforts to educate and train retailers who sell dietary supplements and their staffs about what can and cannot legally be said to customers."

The Government Accountability Office conducted a two-pronged study at the committee's request, focusing on deceptive marketing and any contaminants found in a sampling of products.

The GAO had investigators pose as customers on the phone and at stores in Florida and Washington, D.C., where they found clerks who said certain herbals such as garlic or ginkgo biloba would cure disease or allow people to drop prescription medication. In a few cases they promised no adverse impact when mixing a drug with an herbal, though medical science disagrees. It is illegal for supplement companies to make a health claim unless they clear it first with the Food and Drug Administration.

The study also found that 37 of 40 supplements tested had trace amounts of heavy metals such as lead, though government experts said the amounts were too tiny to affect consumer health.

"Deceptive marketing and dangerous advice pose a risk to the health of the elderly and perhaps other consumers," said Gregory Kutz, a managing director at the GAO. "Aggressive marketers are providing consumers with unsubstantiated claims that their products can treat and cure disease. My advice to consumers across the country is to consult with your doctor before taking any dietary supplements."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a member of the committee and a major supporter of the supplement industry, was not swayed by the GAO's findings.

"To pick three products when there are hundreds of thousands of products doesn't tell us a whole lot," he said, referring to the items Kutz had on the witness table. "There are some bad actors in the industry, we try to ferret them out and get rid of them."

Hatch said existing regulations, many of which he helped write, are adequate to handle any rogue supplement companies that want to make claims they cannot back up with science. The senator said the problem is that the FDA doesn't have enough resources to implement dietary-supplement laws or to aggressively pursue wrongdoers.

On Tuesday, Hatch introduced his latest dietary-supplement bill, which would boost FDA funding in this area and require the agency to provide Congress with an annual report about the progress made. The bill is co-sponsored by Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.


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