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Your future: For Sale

February 6, 2010

In a previous post regarding Basic Research and the impact that they and other supplement companies are having on the health of Americans, I pointed out that Senators from Utah have pushed through laws that have benefited a very profitable industry in their state, laws that have done nothing to help most Americans, and a lot to hurt them.  I have been quite reticent to make this post.  Although this issue is of remarkable importance,  I think knowing that people are out to screw us tends to make us more cynical as a whole.  I would like to be positive and not cynical, but the fact is, people need to hear how a small group of business people and government officials are out to get your money and they don’t care how much they hurt you to do so.

Utah: the Silicon Valley of Supplements

In case you aren’t aware, the state of Utah is referred to as the Silicon Valley of Supplements.  In fact according to Brent Wilhite:

“In the state of Utah, as far as I’m aware, the supplement industry is the second-largest revenue producer behind tourism,”says Dr. Shawn Talbott, a doctor of Nutrition and Supplements in the University of Utah’s Department of Nutrition as well as the editor of supplementWatch.com.

Quite a few Utah-based companies will continue riding the wave of supplement success, not just locally or even nationally, but worldwide. Of Utah’s top 20 publicly held companies, 25 percent are in the nutritional supplement industry. All of these companies distribute their products internationally through independent distributors or health and drugstore partners. The list includes Nu Skin Enterprises, Weider Nutrition International, Nature’s Sunshine Products Inc., USANA Health Sciences and Nutraceutical Corporation. Add to that list the mass of privately owned supplement providers, and you might say Utah is providing a significant boost to nutritional supplement consumption across the globe.

Americans spent nearly $18 billion on nutritional supplements in 2002, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. And the industry continues to grow. Sales from the nutritional supplement industry have experienced a 9 percent jump from 2000, with analysts forecasting a 3 to 5 percent increase through 2008.

There is some speculation as to why Utah has grown up to be the defacto center of the worldwide supplement industry, but this reason is at the top of the list:

Politics has also played a role in Utah’s crop of supplement companies. “From a political standpoint, there’s been a lot of support in Utah for the industry for a long time,” notes Baty. “Sen. Hatch has been a longtime supporter of the supplement industry and was actually proactively and heavily involved in the DSHEA [Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act] in 1994. You have to believe that was helpful in getting some supplement companies to establish their roots here,” he affirms.

Politicians are Selling Your Wellbeing

But as we are discovering more and more every day, politics is a business just like the supplement business.  If a politician wants to get elected and take full advantage of all of the benefits we are giving politicians (make no mistake, the benefits that a politician gets are ridiculous, it is the next best thing to being a rockstar or celebrity and we all know it), they need to get money and how they get it doesn’t really matter to them as long as they follow the campaign donation laws.  Why we would think that a politician from Utah for example could care less about the millions of people in Florida, or California, or New York or Texas is beyond me.  I don’t think that they do.  We generally think of politicians as people who go into office to make the world a better place.  That simply isn’t the case (at least not in my experience).  They are generally self aggrandizing egomaniacs looking to be given the best job on earth.  So, should you be surprised that almost 50% of all of Rep. Jason Chaffetz campaign contributions in 2009?  Matt Canham of the Salt Lake Tribune discovered exactly this:

Rep. Jason Chaffetz likes the dietary supplement industry and his latest campaign finance report shows the feeling is mutual.

Since the beginning of July, Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, collected about $30,500 from supplement makers and distributors, with about half coming from a company that has repeatedly locked horns with federal regulators.

The congressman received the maximum contribution — $2,400 — from six people involved in the leadership of Basic Research, just three weeks after the Salt Lake City-based company filed suit against the Federal Trade Commission over an advertising dispute.

Chaffetz said he is aware of the legal fight, but has not gotten involved and no one from Basic Research has asked him to.

“I’m vaguely familiar with it,” the House freshman said. “I haven’t read through any documents, I’ve just heard some of the anecdotal stories.”

He heard those stories because one of the principal members of the company is a neighbor. Chaffetz said that neighbor, Evan Bybee, set up the fund-raiser.

Calls to Basic Research on Monday were returned by a spokesman representing the company.

“Basic Research has no political giving program and company leadership was unaware of these contributions,” the spokesman said in a statement. “These individuals were making personal donations to the congressman.”

But Chaffetz’s campaign disclosure indicates that six of the company executives donated in the same amount on the same day — Sept. 29.

It would stretch even the most naive person’s credulity to believe that Basic Research was unaware of the 6 identical contributions on the same day, but don’t worry, they don’t have to tell you the truth.  Their money giving habits are part of the public record for the most part and they don’t have to tell you why they are giving large amounts of money to the government.  Speaking of stretching credulity, I am surprised that Rep Chavetz would claim that he is only ‘vaguely familiar’ with Basic Research’s legal problems with the FTC, but he really doesn’t have to tell us about his awareness of massive issues in his constituency.  As well, the government of Utah doesn’t have to tell you why it loves the dietary supplement industry.

The executives at Basic Research and their family members have donated to Utah Republicans in the past, giving Sen. Orrin Hatch money in 2006 and contributing heavily to John Swallow’s unsuccessful bids to unseat Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson in 2002 and 2004.

A few of them gave to Chaffetz during his 2008 campaign, but not nearly in the amounts they contributed this go around. In all, Basic Research employees gave $14,400 to his campaign, nearly 17 percent of his total contributions since July.

Chaffetz attributes the donations to his friendship with Bybee and his strong ties to the supplement industry, which is heavily concentrated in the 3rd Congressional District.

“I talk their language,” he said. “Orrin Hatch has really been the superstar with that industry and I think they understand that they need continued help in the years to come.”

Hatch helped draft the federal regulations overseeing supplements and his son is a lobbyist for the industry. But Chaffetz has his own ties. He is the co-chairman of the dietary supplement caucus in Congress. Previously, he worked for more than a decade as a spokesman for Nu Skin, one of the state’s most prominent supplement makers.

Don’t think that there is any conflict of interest with the senator having worked for one of these donating companies before becoming a senator, which he is essentially working for now that he is a Senator.  He had to work somewhere after all, and this just helps him ‘speak their language’.  In fact, that isn’t nearly as disturbing as the fact that many politicians end up going to work as high paid executives in companies that their acts in the senate and congress have been specifically designed to help.

Still, even without the donations, the government of Utah would still love the supplement industry.  It is the states second largest industry.  They will fight to keep the dollars flowing in.  All of this is how your government works every day, in every state (different states have different interests, so they end up trading their votes with others for whatever interests them).  For everyone who doesn’t live in Utah, they will try to keep your pockets open and the dollars flowing out of them.  So, what did they do to help themselves to your money?  Well, they drafted the DSHEA which removed all supplements from oversight by the Food and Drug Administration, which is to say that the government has no insight over supplements at all.

The DSHEA [Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act]

At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing.  If supplements get treated like drugs, those people who want to take their vitamins might not be able to because the government might be influenced by the drug companies and restrict your access to them.  This is at least what the supporters of the DSHEA want you to believe and you know, it might be true.  The drug companies are no different from the supplement companies after all, they are just trying to get the money out of your pockets too and they don’t like competition, and don’t think that just because they are in the business of manufacturing things that help you live longer or healthier that they care about your health.  It is unlikely that they do, they do care about their bottom line though.  The thing is, the drafters of the DSHEA wanted you to believe that they were protecting your access to supplements.  If you like or love supplements, if you actually believe in alternative medicine, you quite likely believe that the DSHEA is there to protect you.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

If supplements work for specific purposes, that is fantastic.  If they don’t then we are wasting money and potentially our health in taking them (you don’t want to take pills that don’t help you, the only outcome is possibly negative, and they could be keeping you from taking things that could help you).  It isn’t hard to test to see if something does work.  It is the obligation of the company making the claim typically to prove their claims.  If I say that my product does x, I need to prove it.  That is true for almost every product in the US.  I would love to find out that supplements are helpful, that some herbs can help me live longer or have more energy.  I would love that, but as long as the DSHEA exists you will never find that out.  This is because the DSHEA was simply a way to open the floodgates to unscrupulous con artists and snake oil salespeople who want to make more ridiculous claims about your health and sell you products.  According to the FDA:

Under DSHEA, a firm is responsible for determining that the dietary supplements it manufactures or distributes are safe and that any representations or claims made about them are substantiated by adequate evidence to show that they are not false or misleading. This means that dietary supplements do not need approval from FDA before they are marketed.

Yes, we have turned all responsibility for safety and efficacy claims over to the manufacturers…

By law (DSHEA), the manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that its dietary supplement products are safe before they are marketed. Unlike drug products that must be proven safe and effective for their intended use before marketing, there are no provisions in the law for FDA to “approve” dietary supplements for safety or effectiveness before they reach the consumer. Under DSHEA, once the product is marketed, FDA has the responsibility for showing that a dietary supplement is “unsafe,” before it can take action to restrict the product’s use or removal from the marketplace.

There is no provision in the law for companies to prove that their products are safe or effective before we start taking them….  In fact, they don’t even have to disclose the evidence that they have to back up the claims they are making!!!

Do manufacturers or distributors of dietary supplements have to tell FDA or consumers what evidence they have about their product’s safety or what evidence they have to back up the claims they are making for them?

No, except for rules described above that govern “new dietary ingredients,” there is no provision under any law or regulation that FDA enforces that requires a firm to disclose to FDA or consumers the information they have about the safety or purported benefits of their dietary supplement products.

Clearly the fox is guarding the hen house here.  The real losers?  Well all of us, but most specifically the people who actually believe in alternative medicine and the benefits of supplements.  These companies are taking over 18 BILLION DOLLARS (that was back in 2003)!!! and in return they are adding nothing to the research of these supplements!! Think about it.  It is quite likely that alternative medicine has a lot of truth in it.  There is no doubt that botanical extracts have been found to be the foundation of many medicines.  History has shown us that there is tremendous wisdom in these natural methods.  So, now, when we stand on the threshold of proving the value of many of these methods (and the lack of value of others ineffective methods), which would only take a small portion of the revenues these companies are taking from these products, the people who have faith in these products are being robbed of the evidence to support them.  It is criminal, but hey, I did warn you, your future, your health, your children’s future and health, in the US they are for sale.  At least your future isn’t going cheap, the people who are buying it have crazy money!!

What Triggered This Discussion

Why am I bringing up this 16 year old travesty of American justice today?  This morning I was looking online and I noticed that John Stossel was commenting on twitter, about the front page article of The Wall Street Journal.   The gist of this article is that lawyers (and their families) from law firms that  specialize in shareholder litigation are giving the maximum donation to politicians who are local officials with influence over the selection of legal counsel for shareholder lawsuits.  The lawyers are actually giving money  to  county treasurers in a state not their own.  According to the Wall Street Journal:

A Wall Street Journal analysis documented the extent of campaign giving by plaintiffs’ law firms specializing in shareholder litigation. It found that 25 leading firms, their lawyers and family members contributed a total of more than $21 million in the past decade to state-level candidates and party funds, as well as to national-party groups that work to elect state officials. Less than 40% went to candidates within the law firms’ home states.

Labaton Sucharow was among the donation leaders. The law firm, its lawyers and their family members made $612,000 in campaign contributions in 24 states outside its New York home base in the decade.

Some lawyers say widespread political giving by plaintiffs’ law firms, especially outside their home states and near the time when counsel are chosen, is evidence of a corrosive pay-to-play culture in the securities-litigation industry.

Yep, it is that vile.  Whether or not people are actually influenced by these donations is immaterial.  The fact that the system allows this complete and utter APPEARANCE OF IMPROPRIETY is the problem.  The fact that we have to depend on the internal motivations of these politicians to protect us from downright criminality is the problem.  If you don’t see the connection with this and the supplements:

Most plaintiffs’ lawyers say they give simply to support like-minded officials. “We make sizable contributions to candidates we believe support investor causes,” said Stanley Bernstein, of the New York firm of Bernstein Liebhard LLP.

So here the money is going to politicians who support the causes of the few who are gaining the money at the cost of the rest of us.  The special interest groups who are making millions are paying the politicians to create and maintain the system in which they are making money.  This is true of the ‘investor causes’ as well as the DSHEA.  I have no idea if the like-mined officials are supporting great legislation or not.  It doesn’t matter because some times they will be supporting things that I believe in, and sometimes they won’t.  Still, each time people who make money off of their decisions will be supporting their campaign.  How do you think this effects government?  Democracy?  This is happening on all levels of government.  Whatever influence these people have appears to be for sale, and even if it isn’t, it is buying campaigns.

Special Interests Groups

Don’t think it ends with paying off politicians either.  These people need to keep the favorable business environment working for them.  In the US there appears to be pressure to revise the DSHEA and the backlash by a small, well organized group to stop these changes is scary.

There is this group here who are asking you to Save our Supplements.  They turn out to be:

a non-profit C-6 organization funded through donations from suppliers of dietary supplement products and services.

Of course, they don’t tell you who they are, but to be sure, a whole bunch of the donors are from Utah.

There is this group here who are are the Coalition to Preserve DSHEA which is made up of all of the usual suspects.  If you check out the meet the Coalition page, you see the industry Association Members which is made up of six more coalitions who seek to preserve the DSHEA including the Utah Natural Products Alliance.

These are all lobby groups.  They are all trying to keep unfettered access to the public market for products that don’t live up to their claims (at least in terms of scientific standards).

These small groups whip up public fear, suggesting that the government is looking to enter anyone’s house and confiscate their vitamins.  They are saying that the revised legislation gives the government the right to limit the selling of your standard herbal teas…  Obviously none of this is true, but we are so wary of government, and probably rightfully so, we believe these people, who are manipulating us to serve their financial needs.  Again, think about how you are just a cog in these people’s machines and your needs, your health and welfare is TOTALLY immaterial to them.  You think you are kindred spirits.  You think that you both care equally for alternative medicine.  You don’t.  You believe in it as a source of healing, they believe in it as a source of revenue.

I am sick of people being duped out of their money for health products that don’t work and have no reasonable proof of working.  Things are a lot worse than that.  There are much worse possible outcomes (here).

I don’t take vitamins or supplements, so these companies aren’t risking my health or ripping me off.  Read what Consumer Labs has to say about the industry and then ask yourself are these companies conspiring with government to put your health and your children’s health at

Unfortunately, in its latest review of multivitamins, ConsumerLab.com found defects in over 30% of the multivitamins that it selected for review.  And many products exceeded tolerable upper limits for certain vitamins or minerals.  Specific problems found in the multivitamin reviews include:

  • Three of four popular children’s multivitamins reviewed were too high in vitamin A.
  • One men’s multivitamin was contaminated with lead and another had too much folic acid — associated with more than doubling the risk of prostate cancer.
  • One general multivitamin had no more than 50% of its folic acid.  Another was missing 30% of its calcium.
  • senior’s, a prenatal, and a women’s multivitamin each had only 44.1%, 44.3%, and 66.1%, respectively, of their vitamin A.
  • vitamin water had 15 times its stated amount of folic acid, so drinking one bottle would exceed the tolerable limit for adults; less than half a bottle would put children over the limit.
  • pet multivitamin was contaminated with lead and another had only 46% of its vitamin A and 54.7% of its calcium.

In fact overall testing of supplements by Consumer Labs produces slightly better results:

ConsumerLab.com’s tests show that one in four supplements selected for testing lacks the promised ingredients or has other serious problems.

Ya, we don’t need any watchdogs…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 3, 2010 10:50 pm

    As someone who’s been taking supplements (and lots of them) for 33 years, the last thing I want is to see my freedom of choice taken away, which is exactly what the big pharmaceutical companies want to do. There are scam artists in all industries, but no one has ever died from taking nutritional supplements, a claim that the drug companies can’t make about their products. They kill over 100,000 users every year — not even counting overdoses!

    • YouAreNotAFitPerson permalink*
      June 4, 2010 12:17 am

      First and foremost, I am a huge fan of freedom and I would never want anyone to take away your rights or anyone’s rights to access herbal supplements. I have never once suggested that anyone ban supplements. What I am suggesting is that the DSHEA law is ridiculously lax on proof of efficacy for statements manufacturers make about their products. As well, there should be provisions for random testing of supplements for harmful additives not on the labels (lead) and to confirm that the quantities claimed of herbs, etc are actually in the product.
      Secondly, people die every year from nutritional supplements. Not many, and not nearly as many as die from pharmaceuticals, but still there are a number of deaths, in fact “from 1983 to 2004 there were 230 reported deaths from supplements” : http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/16/health/16diet.html
      As well, I am not a lover of big pharmaceutical companies as I hear all of the time of them being taken to task by the government for unethical and illegal activities, including encouraging off label prescriptions. I do like the fact that we regulate our pharmaceutical market though and that the government and the courts can act against these companies when they step out of line.
      Finally, you are right, there are scam artists in every business, but the FDA rarely approves drugs for weight loss and the weight loss industry has WAY more than their fair share of scam artists! Given this fact, the bulk of them have turned up selling their snake oil in the fitness arena and I am going to do everything I can to make the public aware of the constant scams as well as help to mobilize them to change faulty legislation like the DSHEA.
      I am happy that we have supplements, but I will be all the happier with supplements that have been proven to meet the claims of the producers.
      By the way, for anyone out there who thinks vitamins are entirely safe, for the most part they are, but vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble vitamins, not water soluble. Your body just excretes the excess with water soluble vitamins, but the fat soluble vitamins are metabolized by your liver and taking more than the recommended daily dose of A, D, E and K can be harmful. Don’t make the mistake of thinking just because it is natural, it is fine.

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