A crackdown by both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission on 12 supplement makers selling 58 products that claimed to help Alzheimer’s patients is just the latest in decades of reports about fraud in the supplement industry.
In 2016, then-Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., successfully pushed Amazon to stop selling the “Brain Armor” supplement that claimed to stave off dementia. In 2015, an investigation by the New York attorney general’s office found that supplements sold by GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens not only made grand claims about their efficacy, but also contained little or none of the “medicinal herbs” that allegedly provided medical relief.
Given that more than half of American adults use supplements and that it is a $120 billion-plus annual industry, it is astounding that supplements are so lightly regulated. But Congress has repeatedly blocked attempts to make supplement producers back up health claims. A 1994 law lobbied for by the supplements industry specifically exempts supplements from being reviewed for effectiveness or safety before they are sold – unlike prescription drugs.
Government regulations can go too far and have contributed to problems like California’s housing shortage. But when it comes to products that have a long history of making false claims about medical benefits, regulation is appropriate – and overdue.