Unethical Herbal Supplements

Hey, what’s in that bottle of all-natural herbal supplements on your kitchen counter? Are you sure? What will those supplements do for you? Cure all that ails you? Something? Nothing? One way or the other, how do you know? The truth is, you probably shouldn’t feel so certain.

Here’s the story, from Katherine Harmon, in Scientific American: Herbal Supplement Sellers Dispense Dangerous Advice, False Claims

[The lack of evidence for their effectiveness] …hasn’t stopped many supplement sellers from making the false claims and even recommending potentially dangerous uses of the products to customers, according to a recent investigation conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). To obtain a sample of sales practices, the agency got staff members to call online retailers and to pose undercover as elderly customers at stores selling supplements.

Customers were not only told that supplements were capable of results for which there is no scientific evidence (such as preventing or curing Alzheimer’s disease); the advice and information also was potentially harmful (including a recommendation to replace prescription medicine with garlic)….

Some fans of herbal remedies are liable to complain that the relevant government agencies ought to be directing their efforts at the real culprits, namely Big Pharma. Why pick on people who package and sell “natural” herbal products when major pharmaceutical companies are, on a regular basis, found to have engaged in a whole range of dubious and sometimes deadly behaviours? But that’s roughly like a bank robber, upon his arrest, complaining that the cops ought to be out chasing white-collar criminals instead. The fact that embezzlement is a bad thing does nothing to diminish the badness of robbery. Both are wrong, and both are worthy of punishment.

Essentially, what we’re seeing here is history catching up with the makers of herbal supplements. Over the last decades, we’ve imposed increasingly tough rules on the pharmaceutical industry (though those rules still need to be tightened up in various ways). But herbal products are part of the “natural” products industry, and that industry is woefully under-regulated. Indeed, that industry is probably about as well-regulated today as the pharmaceutical industry was, say, 50 years ago.

(p.s. for information about which herbal supplements are and are not backed by good science, see Scott Gavura’s Science-Based Pharmacy blog.)

1 comment so far

  1. […] Unethical Herbal Supplements May 29, 2010 […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: