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Vitamin Supersell

William T. Jarvis, Ph.D.

Many people have the misconception that drug companies oppose the use of dietary supplements because they want people to take their prescription medications. This idea is countered by the reality that drug companies are the primary sources of vitamins and other substances being sold as dietary supplements. Hoffmann-La Roche's attitude on consumer protection was challenged by Kurt Youngmann in the following letter to Irwin Lerner, President and CEO, written on May 16, 1992:

Dear Mr. Lerner:

A quote in the latest issue of Nutrition Forum attributed to your Mr. Anthony Iannarone is, if accurate, the most appalling and cynical comment that I have ever encountered from anyone in the legitimate health care industry. He is quoted as saying in part "...neither government agencies nor industry, including the supplement industry, should be protecting people from their own stupidity."

When the supplement industry, through its own attempts (mostly via advertisements) consciously and intentionally fosters and perpetuates that "stupidity" by undertaking to convince the public at large, most of whom have little or no knowledge of nutrition science, that they are in fact poorly nourished, and then has the audacity to call us stupid, there is a definite problem of ethics An instance of this sort originating from an illegitimate source such as a "health food" company is bad enough, but when a supposedly ethical firm like Hoffman-LaRoche is guilty of such cynicism, lack of tact and disdain for public at large is inexcusable.

If his statement is representative of corporate thought and policy, I believe it is time for you and your board of directors and company officers to consider some major changes in your policies and attitudes.

Yours truly,

Kurt Youngmann
Highland Park, IL

The notion that drug companies are not interested in dietary supplements because they are not patentable is a straw man. In fact, dietary supplements, particularly vitamins, are extremely profitable. They require very little research and development expenditure, are cheap to produce, and easily sold because the public has a love affair with the idea of vitamins. Marketing, not the ability to patent products, is the key to financial success. Centrum, a product of the Lederle Company, another pharmaceutical giant, has been a vitamin market leader or many years. In 1996, for example, it sold over $200 million worth of product. Centrum's success was based upon television advertising health benefits to the over-50 crowd, not developing a new or superior patented product.

The vitamin industry is extremely aggressive in promoting its products. Virtually every promoter accentuates the positive aspects of supplements while ignoring, glossing over, or rationalizing away the negative effects. The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), a trade association of more than 70 supplement companies, has been at the forefront of over promoting the benefits of dietary supplements. CRN formed as a result of intense lobbying efforts to pass the Proxmire Bill in the mid-1970s. The Proxmire Bill was the first piece of modern legislation to weaken rather than consumer protection in the health product marketplace. CRN and other trade groups were also responsible for the ill-conceived 1994 Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act that reversed most of the hard-won consumer protection gains of the 20th century related to dietary supplements. NCAHF believes that the dietary supplement industry represents an "evil empire" bent on destroying consumer protection to further its own self-interest. It is an industry that may be exerting undue influence on the research community as well. Government research funds are scarce, which forces many to turn to industry for help. Although most scientists probably would not sell out to the grantors, the researchers who find positive results are likely to gain favor and additional grants.

Public relations firms working for the vitamin pushers have deceived the media by substituting public relations hyperbole for objective scientific reporting. The April 6, 1992, Time magazine cover story read like a health-food magazine as it shouted the headlines: "New research shows they [vitamins] may help fight cancer, heart disease and the ravages of aging." The article's byline stated: "No, you may not be getting enough of these crucial nutrients in your diet." The article's false premise was that scientific positions that question the benefits of self-prescribed supplementation with glamour nutrients (i.e., those popularized by enthusiasts) are now outmoded. Scientists were selectively quoted as supporting "a new paradigm" that endorses supplementation. Many who spoke favorably of supplements are, or have been, supported by the supplement industry. Victor Herbert had supplied the Time article's author with solid evidence of the potential harm of antioxidant supplementation, but the substance of his comments were not printed. He was simply quoted as a nay-sayer for the status quo.

Note, too, that the word "may" is a weasel word -- a term derived from the weasel's habit of sucking the contents out of an egg while leaving the shell superficially intact -- a word used in order to evade or retreat from a direct or forthright statement or position. As noted by a top care salesman: "Weasel words have become more than just an evasion or retreat . . . . they can make you hear things that are not being said, accept as truths things that have only been implied, and believe things that have only been suggested. When you hear a weasel word, you automatically hear the implication. Not the real meaning, but the meaning IT wants you to hear." [1]

Although the TIME article feigned balance, the overall message was that everyone should take vitamin pills. The article went beyond advocacy to prescription by presenting a table of vitamins and their possible benefits. The article came at a critical time when Congress was being bombarded with mail stimulated by the supplement industry trying to squelch proposed FDA policies aimed at reigning in the out-of-control marketing of supplements. David Zimmerman's Probe (5/1/92) entitled his critique of the Time article, "Vitamin Bs Boosts Sales." In his analysis, Zimmerman called weasel words "fudge words." In reference to the word "may," Zimmerman wrote, "in one Time's table this fudge word appears an incredible 15 times. But the powerful thrust of the piece, and the media message is that the 'mays' are but quibbles." Probe revealed that the source of Time's story was a press-kit about a New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) conference held in Arlington, VA, Feb. 9-12, which was generated and mainly funded by Roche the world's largest vitamin manufacturer. The conference did not include a cross-section of scientists, but hand-picked people whose work favored supplementation. One of the co-chairmen, who chose the speakers, was vitamin researcher Lawrence Machlin who works for Roche. Probe also noted that the NYAS had designated the conference as an official continuing education course (CME) for physicians. New rules proposed by the FDA say that CME events should "meet standards for independence" and that a drug company "should take specific steps to ensure objectivity, balance and scientific rigor," and "not be able to exert control, express or implied, over the scientific contents of the activity." Such standards clearly were not met in this case.

The greatest impropriety was the way that the conference was promoted to the media. The public relations firm, Ketchum, put its press release on NYAS letterhead and did not reveal that the conference was sponsored by Roche. The contact person for the Ketchum press release was Maureen Ternus, MS, RD, who has also been the VINS contact person for another pro-vitamin package, Antioxidant Vitamins: Good News for Healthy Hearts, distributed by Roche in April, 1992. The press kit included unproved medical claims (e.g., "prevents cancer") that would have been unlawful for dietary supplements either on labels, or in promotional materials such as a manufacturer's press release. By hiding the fact that the conference was proposed, largely paid for, and heavily influenced by Roche, a press package laced with illegal claims became the basis for the biggest vitamin promotion of the decade. The vitamin lobby had 25,000 copies of the Time article reprinted with the splashy cover. Free copies were sent to thought leaders throughout the country, including every member of the Congress and Senate. This promotion probably helped persuade busy legislators that solid science supports supplementation for everyone. However, in addition to the propaganda, the vitamin pushers also pumped cash into the halls of Congress. One report stated that the supplement lobby paid $2.5 million to Congressional representatives to get its message across [2]. The Time article also noted that Roche was opening a plant in Freeport, Texas, that would churn out 350 tons of beta carotene per year -- enough to supply every American adult with a 6 mg capsule daily [3].

Just like the public relations efforts, vitamin advertising is also often false or misleading. Flintstone vitamins ads suggest that the product will help kids grow big like the dinosaurs; Centrum Plus tells oldsters that its formulation incorporates the latest science on special needs of aging; General Nutrition Centers advertise that its biotin formulation will help prevent baldness; some companies imply that vitamins help people cope with stress.

In 1986, New York Attorney General Robert Abrams put an end to deceptive advertising by the Lederle Company that had telling consumers that vitamins could help reduce the ill effects of psychological stress [5].

The Federal Trade Commission has ignored deceptive vitamin advertising thus far, but this may change since the FDA has been prevented from effective health fraud enforcement against dietary supplements. False and misleading vitamin advertising is largely only "soft core quackery" (i.e., it only costs money), but the impact has deeper meaning as health and nutrition misinformation becomes reinforced in the public mind. Misinformation that is widely-held can have a significant, and deleterious, effect upon policies which determine how we distribute our resources. With almost no regulation of dietary supplements the long term effects could be serious for our democratic society.

Is VERIS, veris?

Veris is the Latin root for "truth." VERIS Research Information Service, Inc. is a not-for-profit corporation funded by Cogins Nutrition and Health, a company that manufactures raw materials for carotenoid and antioxidant supplements. VERIS was criticized by David Zimmerman for misrepresenting the value of beta-carotene supplements [4]. VERIS lists a tally of studies showing the results of epidemiological studies on carotenoids. The number showing a benefit, outnumber those showing no benefit or harm. However, despite the fact that the better studies have all come down against the value of beta carotene supplementation, VERIS strongly recommends that consumers use these supplements. This is pretty good evidence that consumers cannot take serious the recommendations of agencies funded by the vitamin industry even when they are called by credibility-enhancing names.

Another public relations agency that disseminates data favorable to the marketing of supplements in the Vitamin Nutrition Information Service (VNIS) which is funded by Hoffmann-La Roche, VINS sees to it that thought leaders in health education, medicine and nutrition see the published reports on the benefits of vitamins. Studies with negative results also sometimes appear in VINS packages, but these tend to be downplayed and rationalized while the positive data is extolled. The result is a pro-dietary supplement bias that makes the most of the already overblown expectations that most consumers have for vitamin-taking.

References

  1. Wrighter. I Can Sell You Anything. NY: Ballantine, 1972.
  2. Dynamic Chiropractic 11/4/94.
  3. Toufexis A. "The new scoop on vitamins," Time April 6, 1992, p.58.
  4. Zimmerman D. "Vitamin maker fools public with footnotes," Probe, February, 2000.
  5. Barrett & Herbert. The Vitamin Pushers. Prometheus, 1994, pp.49-51.

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© 2000, National Council Against Health Fraud.
With proper citation, this article may be reproduced for noncommercial purposes

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This article was posted on February 1, 2002.