How Should FDA Regulate Diet Supplements?

Supplement companies promising "skinny" are now being slapped with fat fines for false advertising, CBS News correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi reports. So how did they get away with it in the fisrt place?

In 1993, the FDA was on the verge of enforcing a "truth in labeling regulation" for dietary supplements. The industry struck back with commercials that urged consumers to write to their congressmen or else they might have to kiss their Vitamin C goodbye.

"More people wrote to Congress about the supplement bill than wrote about the Vietnam War," says science and medical writer Dan Hurley.

Hurley says Congress caved and passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 instead.

Does it protect the consumer? "I would say it protects the manufacturers. It frees them of any requirement to prove that their product is safe or effective before it's sold," Hurley says.

Hurley — who investigated the supplement industry for his book "Natural Causes" — says the supplement industry then convinced lawmakers to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on studies, looking at everything from treating colds with echinacea to treating cancer with mistletoe and shark cartilage.

"We learned that most of of the products tested have not worked," Hurley says.

But not everyone agrees. David Seckman, the head of the Natural Products Association, says supplements have been proven to work and are safe. But if they're safe, what's the problem with regulating them?

"They are regulated," Seckman says. "That's just it; as a food, not a drug."

The difference? Drugs have to be approved by the FDA before they hit the market. Supplements don't. So when it comes to protecting people before there's a problem, the FDA has its hands tied.
  • Melissa McNamara

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