Consumer Reports, September 2012 issue, features an article on nutritional supplements and it turned out to be far from the balanced, informative piece that I was hoping it would be.
Back in May, Consumer Reports invited readers to write and tell about their experiences with nutritional supplements. In response, I sent an email detailing some of my experiences with supplements. In my letter I detailed the use of such things as:
- the spice turmeric (clinically proven to lower fibrinogen levels)
- omega-3 fish oil to lower my triglycerides and improve my LDL and HDL values
- niacin has effectively lowered my LDL-P particle count and LDL small particle count
- CoQ10 (ubiquinol form), which has helped increase my cardiac ejection fraction
- 5-lox, black cumin extract, l-arginine, and l-carnitine, to reduce inflammation
- Kyolic garlic for blood pressure reduction
- Magnesium and potassium, in which most people are deficient
In my letter to Consumer Reports I cited peer-reviewed literature and talked about how each of these supplements has been verified to be effective through lab or other testing.
I obviously didn’t expect any specifics from my email to appear in the Consumer Reports article, nor did even expect a response from them regarding my email. I merely hoped that letters like these would convey to Consumer Reports some of the many ways in which knowledgeable laypersons are using supplements to improve health. I optimistically expected that CR’s article would paint a balanced picture of dietary supplements, perhaps concluding that with reasonable precautions, far-reaching benefits were possible and are supported by peer-reviewed research, all in in the context of dietary supplements’ incredibly favorable safety record.
The September issue of Consumer Reports arrived in my mailbox this week and as soon as I saw the cover and the title, I knew it was going to be ugly:
Before even opening the magazine, CR’s message and intent is clear: supplements are dangerous and scary and your family needs to be protected from them!
Not “How to Obtain the Greatest Benefit from Nutritional Supplements” or even “How to Avoid Common Mistakes While Benefitting from Nutritional Supplements.” No, by God. These things are scary and dangerous and somebody needs to do something!
Ok. Maybe the cover is just a bit alarmist to help sales at the newsstand. After all, sensationalism sells, right? Maybe the article itself is more balanced.
Silly me, again.
Let’s take a look at the first “danger” we need to protect our family from:
“Supplements are not risk-free.”
No big surprise here. Nothing is risk-free. Anyone who thinks any food, supplement, or medication is risk free is asking for trouble. Taking reasonable caution with any supplement, including careful research and introducing them one at a time to watch for side-effects, is certainly prudent advice. How does Consumer Reports approach this point, however? Do they carefully compare hard data showing the well-documented safety record of nutritional supplements to the risks from prescription medications? No, they do not. I guess because that wouldn’t be nearly sensationalistic enough.
According to the article, “More than 6,300 reports of serious adverse events associated with dietary supplements, including vitamins and herbs, streamed into the FDA…between 2007 and April 2012. The reports themselves don’t prove the supplements caused the problems, but the raw numbers are cause for concern.”
Consumer Reports goes on to say that even though there’s no proof, the use of supplements during this five-year period “was associated with 112 deaths.”
First of all, what are these reports? They’re reports gathered by “The FDA Safety Information and Adverse Event Reporting Program,” an FDA program initiated in 2007 to track adverse events caused by dietary supplements. The FDA created this program because they “would like to know whenever the use of a dietary supplement causes you to have a serious reaction or illness, even if you’re not certain that the product was the cause and/or you did not visit a doctor or clinic.”
It’s interesting to note that unsubstantiated claims by a lay public that is told “even if you’re not certain that the product was the cause and/or you did not visit a doctor or clinic” becomes a quoted statistic by Consumer Reports, who apparently made no effort to substantiate this figure with other sources. What does “associated with supplement use” mean anyway? Perhaps the photo and caption on page 20 is a clue:
In case you can’t make it out from the picture, the caption reads, “Complications? Pieter Cohen with a patient who had a heart attack while on supplements.”
So, a patient who has a heart attack while taking any nutritional supplement means that the event was “associated with nutritional supplement use?” Is that how they’re defining deaths that are “associated with nutritional supplement use” too?
Where is the evidence that this patient, or any patient, had a heart attack or died because of a nutritional supplement? Hey, Consumer Reports, how about you show some patients who had heart attacks while taking a prescription medication? That undoubtedly describes virtually every heart attack victim. Or perhaps instead of correlating nutritional supplements to heart attacks, Consumer Reports, you could do an equally baseless study on the dangers of natural fibers and caption the photo “Pieter Cohen with a patient who had a heart attack while wearing wool socks.”
Had they even attempted to bring real data to bear on the deaths “associated with nutritional supplement use,” they might have stumbled upon U.S. National Poison Data System’s annual report from 2010 (the most recent report available) that shows zero deaths from nutritional supplements.
For now, however, let’s give CR a massive benefit of the doubt and assume that these 112 deaths, about 20 per year, are truly caused by the use of supplements, a very huge assumption of its own accord, considering the National Poison Data System’s data. How does that compare to deaths caused by prescription medications?
According to the 2003 medical report Death by Medicine, by Drs. Gary Null, Carolyn Dean, Martin Feldman, Debora Rasio and Dorothy Smith, 783,936 people in the United States die every year from conventional medical mistakes, with 106,000 of those caused by prescription drugs.
106,000 confirmed deaths per year caused by prescription medications as compared to 20 possibly associated deaths from dietary supplements. While any death is an unwelcome one, it’s interesting to note that this unsubstantiated figure of 20 deaths per year is one-third the number of annual deaths caused by lightning in the United States. Of course, the headline “you’re three times more likely to die from being struck by lightning as you are from taking dietary supplements” isn’t the sort of calming headline that Consumer Reports was obviously intending.
Already it’s clear to me that if Consumer Reports was serious about protecting the interests of the consumer, the cover of this issue would have been:
Here’s another “danger” to protect your family from:
“None are proven to cure major diseases.”
Consumer Reports goes on to say that the FDA gets “far more reports” about serious problems with prescription medications than about supplements. “But there’s a big difference between the two…because these powerful medications with powerful side effects are actually saving lives when used appropriately. But when healthy consumers use supplements, there’s rarely, if ever, a powerful life-saving effect.”
“Powerful, life-saving effects?” I have no doubt that lives are saved by prescription medications, but to that I’ll say prescription medications had better be saving a staggering number of lives to even begin offsetting the 106,000 people per year that they’re killing.
So, why is it that supplements don’t have a powerful, life-saving effect and cannot claim to cure or treat any disease? For the very simple reason that supplement manufacturers are prohibited by federal law to claim that supplements diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Even if a supplement does treat or cure a disease, it’s illegal for a manufacturer to say that it does. Before a manufacturer can say a supplement will treat or cure a disease, they must have FDA approval to make that specific claim, a process that costs an estimated $250 million to $2 billion dollars per supplement, per claim. Even omega-3 fish oil, proven to lower triglyceride and LDL levels, cannot state this fact on its packaging, because only the identical prescription form of omega-3 fish oil, called Lovasa, has paid for the privilege through FDA approval. Similarly, manufacturers of pure niacin (vitamin B3), an inexpensive dietary supplement that also lowers LDL, cannot state this fact because only Niaspan, the identical prescription form of niacin, has paid for the privilege. What happens when a company spends this much money to obtain FDA approval to make specific claims for their supplement? Invariably the supplement becomes prescription-only so that the sales price can be much higher to recoup the cost of FDA approval. Thus, the entire process is structured so that only FDA-approved, prescription-only medications can claim to treat or cure a disease, thus ensuring that non-patentable, non-prescription dietary supplements can never make this claim, no matter their benefits.
Timed With an Agenda?
It’s noteworthy, too, that this alarmist piece comes on the heals of an April 2012 “Draft Guidance” from the FDA in which the FDA declares its intent to require exorbitant safety testing on dietary supplements, far in excess of the safety testing required for prescription medications. The restrictions advocated by the FDA would even be imposed upon supplements that have been used safely for decades. It seems very likely to me that this article is intended to sway public opinion on the heels of this FDA initiative in order to smooth the way for increased government bureaucracy and intrusion into the dietary supplement market. After all, Consumer Reports has a rather consistent track record of wanting the government to make the world 100% safe for every consumer out there. Bigger government, more oversight, more regulations. All in the name of public safety. That’s the Consumer Report way.
While there are some useful warnings and guidelines scattered throughout the sensationalism, I can’t get past the article’s pointed goal of demonizing nutritional supplements while conveniently overlooking the very blighted history of prescription medications in use today. CR could have taken the high road and provided a balanced and informative article but they didn’t. Instead, they’ve produced a piece that reads more like a National Enquirer article designed to portray supplements as a frightening minefield with no tangible benefits.
It’s sad that an organization who purports to be all about the consumer plays right into the hands of the incompetent bureaucrats at the FDA who approve pharmaceutical products that kill over a hundred thousand people every year at the time they are clamoring for even more control of our lives and our nutritional supplements. All in the name of the public good, of course.
“For the public good” will undoubtedly go down in history as the favored rallying cry of every successful oppressor.
After careful consideration, I’ve decided upon a place of honor for this issue of Consumer Reports…