A Wave of Shady "Supplements" Endangers U.S. Buyers
Contaminated products promising instant weight loss and permanent erections are flooding the U.S., imported by Asian black-market manufacturers. Buyers are suffering the adverse effects.
Anyone who spends time on the Internet has been bombarded by tacky ads, such as "Lose 10 Pounds in 1 Week with Real hCG," or "Super-X for Men Top Sex Pill," or "Enhance Your Brain Memory Power." But vast amounts of dangerous and powerful drugs are being marketed—and purchased—in the US in the guise of “nutraceuticals." These nutritional supplements—which the FDA has inadequate resources to regulate for safety and no authority to test for efficacy—are increasingly manufactured with black-market drugs. In particular, products marketed for weight loss, sexual function, and bodybuilding have been found to contain amphetamines, synthetic steroids, laxatives and Viagra analogues.
Obama's FDA does what it can. It's issued warnings for over 300 such products, and seized over $1 million worth of illegal compounds marketed as supplements. Many come from overseas, with China—known as the Wild West of pharmaceuticals—by far the biggest offender. The New York Times reports that $1 million is a drop in the ocean: “It’s a remarkable tidal wave of products,” says Michael Levy, acting director of the FDA’s Office of Drug Security, Integrity and Recalls. “We are removing only a fraction.” Chronically short on funding and staff, the agency can't keep up with the rapid proliferation of adulterated pharmaceuticals from China, India and other emerging nations, sold in the US by Big Pharma. It opened its first overseas office in 2008—three regulators in Beijing—after a series of lethal contaminations of widely used generic drugs. So far not a single supplement manufacturing plant in China has been visited. Policing nutraceuticals is not a priority.
Americans spent $28.1 billion on dietary supplements last year, up $7 billion from five years ago. Wanna-be lotharios spent billions on products like "Ever Hard" designed to "keep you at attention" for up to eight hours. Many vitamins and supplements are not only safe but have scientific evidence supporting their health benefits, although claims on their labels that they prevent, treat or cure a medical condition are illegal—and typically a red flag to save your money.
Trainor Walsh, a public affairs official at the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), a trade group representing supplement manufacturers, says legitimate manufacturers ensure safety, with or without government oversight. As for the illegal drug-as-supplement products, CRN and other trade groups have pushed the FDA for a crackdown. "We consistently urge the FDA to take action against these criminal companies," he told the Fix. Yet it would seem to be a matter of self-interest for this multibillion-dollar, largely self-regulating industry not to place the entire onus for quality control on a government agency that everyone knows is stretched thin to the point of breaking.
CRN's Walsh claims that the mainstream supplement industry is stepping up to the plate. "Last December, our trade association and four others in the supplement industry joined with FDA to highlight the need for greater enforcement and warn consumers of the problems associated with these companies selling illegal products," he says. But based on the evidence, gestures alone will not suffice.
Consumer Reports recently issued an extensive summary of the most common and most dangerous substances sold as dietary supplements.