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    Flim-Flam on the Supplement Aisle: The New York Attorney General Lets Us Know the Scam

    By Dr. Arthur Lavin

    It was reported in February of 2017, that the Attorney General for the State of New York has sent a formal warning to some of the nation’s top retailers of medicines, to take major brands of dietary supplement off their shelves.  Why?  Because he has established that in the vast majority of the bottles sold, there is rice and other fillers instead of the substance claimed on the label.


    Who are the retailers?

    Target, Walmart, Walgreen’s, and GNC.  Together the three companies with pharmacies sell about 25% of all prescriptions in the US.  Walmart of course is the world’s largest retailer.  These are the nation’s leading sellers of supplements.

    What supplements is the NY Attorney General ordering be removed and why?

    Here are some reported examples from the report of the Attorney General of New York:

    • At Walgreen’s, ginseng pills, only contained rice and garlic
    • At Walmart, ginkgo biloba, only contained radish, houseplants, and wheat
    • At Target, St. John’s wort, valerian root, and gingko biloba, each had none of these herbs in the bottles labeled as such
    • At GNC, a variety of pills contained powdered legumes, such as peanuts and soybeans, posing a risk of allergy

    The Attorney General found what was in the bottle by identifying the DNA contained in the pills.

    What is a dietary supplement?

    The concept of a dietary supplement has nothing to do with medical science, but rather is a creation of Congress.

    A law passed by Congress in 1994 created the category of chemicals now referred to as dietary supplements (the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994).  This law essentially defined a set of chemicals that could be sold to relieve symptoms with legal protection against ever having to prove they work or are safe.  The only safeguard provided was that if someone could prove they hurt people, the FDA would be allowed to take them off the market.

    But any substance deemed by the law to be a dietary supplement could be sold to the public with no proof that it worked, that it was safe, or even that bottles of the product actually contain the product described in the label.   This law was largely the creation of the industries that make these substances.

    In 2012, the Senator most closely identified with the supplement industry, Senator Orrin Hatch, blocked passage of a bill that would have moved these supplements into the category of other medications, that require FDA supervision, so as of now, this industry does what it likes, answering to no standard.

    The fact that herbal supplements sold at the largest retail chains in the US tend to be completely fraudulent products is the result.

    Trouble even if the supplement is present in the pill.

    In 2015, an article found that about 23,000 Americans have to go the ER every year due to adverse effects from taking dietary supplements.  About 2000 of them end up hospitalized.

    By far the age group that came to the most harm were young adults, ages 20-34.

    Three main categories of harm found were:
    1.  Heart problems in young adults taking weight loss and energy supplements.

    1. Kids experiencing overdosages from getting into supplements of micronutrients.
    2. Elderly people choking on pills.

    The heart problems in young adults was the largest group.

    Why this matters

    Dietary supplements are hot.

    The industry that makes them has been wildly successful in getting us to take them.    About half of all American adults have taken a dietary supplement in the last month.  We spend about a third of all we spend on prescription drugs on dietary supplements.

    This is one of the great marketing successes in history, all the more remarkable for selling products that in most cases have no proof of doing anything.

    Of course taking something in hopes that it will work is fine if it is harmless.  But if it can hurt you, it seems all the more important to know if it works.

    By law, dietary supplements are excused from finding out if they work, and so very few have ever been studied to find out if they do anything in reality.

    That makes this finding that so many young adults end up in the ER from them very important.


    1. Dietary supplements are a category created by Congress as part of an industry strategy to sell product, not a product of any medical or science related research.
    2. It turns out that none of them are actually a food, and as such are not really dietary.  They are chemicals and should be judged by the same two standards all chemicals should be held accountable to:  do they work? do they hurt?
    3.   We now know that weight loss and energy supplements cause heart problems in thousands of young adults.
    4. And we now know that no one really has any idea what is in the pill you buy from a bottle of herbal supplements.  The label may say ginseng, but the pill may be made of only rice or houseplants.
    5. Our recommendation is that no one should take any chemical on a regular basis without knowing if it really does work and what harm it can cause.

    To your health,
    Dr. Arthur Lavin


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