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Governmental Oversight of Dietary Supplements--Lacking

More Americans are shelling out plenty for dietary supplements that promise relief from the effects of aging only to find themselves relieved mostly of their money. And as Bob Orr reports, Congress is just now getting around to sounding a public alert about the government's own inability, or unwillingness, to crack down.

It's a $27 billion industry fueled by Internet and direct-market sales, pushing a pill for everything from impotence to heart disease to memory loss and even old age. But, says attorney Vernon Glenn, "your doctor is going to tell you that it's not worth a tinker's damn. None of it is. It's junk. It's all junk."

Yet a Senate committee heard that more than 60% of Americans take some form of so-called dietary supplements, products that are virtually untested and unregulated.

"I could take my grass clippings, pack them into capsules, and sell them on virtually any claims that I wished, with little expectation that anything would be done about it," testified Dr. Timothy Gorski, a physician.

One of the biggest peddlers of supplements is Glenn Braswell, who targets the over-40 crowd with his Journal of Longevity magazine.

"I respectfully decline to answer the question based on my rights under the Fifth Amendment," said Braswell, who was pardoned by former President Clinton for a 1983 fraud conviction. But his company made a mistake in sending his magazine to the committee chairman's wife.

"Mr. Braswell, I've just got to ask you," said Sen. John Breaux, chairman of the Special Committee on Aging, "do you really use any of these products that are advertised in that Journal of Longevity yourself?"

"On advice of counsel, I assert the privilege," answered Braswell again.

But Braswell's former financial chief did talk, saying the company whips up demand for its supplements with lies, deception, and bogus promises.

"That is, if a product does not do well, it's renamed and given life in treating some other malady," said Mike O'Neil, former chief financial officer of Braswell's company GB Data Systems.

But for now the law actually protects marketers. While pharmaceutical companies must prove their drugs are safe, supplement providers get a pass. Unless the government can prove a supplement is dangerous, it can be sold whether it has value or not.
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