April 23, 2013

Big Pharma Is Evil. Ergo All Supplements and Their Hucksters Are Good.

This post's title, stated so baldly, sounds crazy. But the comments I get when I question claims for supplements suggest that people really believe it. No wonder we spend over $25 billion a year on supplements.

Reaction to my Criticism of Claims for Coconut Oil
I've posted several times about the lack of evidence for coconut oil as an Alzheimer's remedy, and about the big bucks promoters make from those claims. I've made similar comments on websites that tout the coconut oil "miracle." When I do, I get comments attacking me as a lackey of Big Pharma. A few examples:
  • "Oh really sir? And what do you do for a living, peddle lipator? The FDA, big pharma, and the Alzheimer's Association would NEVER suppress a cheap natural cure, now would they? Hey, BTW, I've got a bridge for sale..." 
  • "Pharmaceuticals are out to make gargantuan big bucks with all sorts of spurious claims about their products...and side effects to boot. I vote hooray to anyone who can outsmart money-grubbing pharmaceuticals who care NOT about you, but the money in their pockets" 
  • "As with any other natural remedy, watch for the pharmaceutical companies’ FDA to do everything the bureaucrats can to make sure that “Coconut Oil Touted as Alzheimer's Remedy” does not become a remedy for the general population."
I'm No Fan of Big Pharma
I'm hardly a defender of Big Pharma. I'd love to see Congress repeal the law that prohibits Medicare from negotiating lower prices with pharmaceutical companies. Every other developed country authorizes government to take steps to reduce drug prices.

The pharmaceutical companies spend nearly $5 billion a year on TV ads for products treating everything from toenail fungus to cancer. The ads drive unnecessary use of prescription meds and steer patients to expensive brand names and away from generics. Doctors feel pressure to prescribe the most heavily advertised products.

Only two countries -- the U.S. and New Zealand -- allow drug companies to make direct, emotional, often unscientific pitches on TV. Here's an example:
You know when you feel the weight of sadness. You may feel exhausted, hopeless, anxious. Haven't we all felt like this at times? But should we all be on Zoloft?
One side effect of all these ads is heightened anxiety. Another is an uncontrollable urge to throw the TV right out the window.

Still another side effect is to say: "I'll show Big Pharma what it can do with its prescribed medications! I'll use supplements instead!"

But Are Supplement Hucksters Any Better?
The snake-oil salesman is a part of Americana. The days of Carter's Little Liver Pills and the bread that "helps build bodies 12 ways" are gone. But it wasn't too long ago that consumers filled their shopping baskets with advertised products that never delivered the promised benefits.

Watching today's consumers (me included) at the dietary supplement shelves at CVS or Whole Foods, one is reminded that the "more things change, the more they remain the same." We spend an estimated $25 billion or more annually on these supplements as though we had discovered the Holy Grail.

About 60 percent of these consumers are older Americans. More and more seniors turn to these supplements.

Unlike prescribed medicines, the claims for dietary supplements are not evaluated and regulated by the FDA. Furthermore, manufacturers of supplements are not required to register with any government agency.

Plenty of supplement hucksters appear on TV and on the internet. Consumers loading up on bottles of virgin coconut oil later experience the same terrible disappointment their grandparents did after buying those "miraculous" little liver pills.

Patients desperate for cures go down many avenues that become dead ends. Those futile trips pad the coffers of Big Pharma AND the checkbooks of the supplement snake (or coconut) oil promoters.

But all supplements are not created equal, as far as science is concerned. Much responsible research about supplements has been undertaken recently. Studies have shown they can enhance nutrition and promote good health.

But it's difficult sifting through the piles of marketing hype that some manufacturers use to convince us they've found the new magic bullet that will cure our ills.

Tomorrow, I'll report on researchers' consensus about the most popular supplements. But the headline for most supplements is this -- we are better advised to get what we need from our diet, not from pills.

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