Democratic Rep. Kay Khan, has introduced a bill in the state legislature to put supplements marketed for weight loss and muscle building behind sales counters accessible only to certain store personnel such as pharmacists or managers. The reason, Khan told NutraIngredients-USA, is because in her view the products pose unacceptable risks.
“I have filed a bill this legislative session that would ban the sale of weight-loss and muscle-building supplements to minors under the age of 18, as well regulate sales to the general public, by placing the products behind store counters. There are ingredients in these products that are not monitored by the FDA, and only when tragic circumstances occur does the FDA evaluate the potential harmful effects of a weight-loss product,” Khan said.
In a fact sheet distributed to fellow state lawmakers and to NutraIngredients-USA, Khan alleged that these categories of supplements have potentially dangerous side effects and are insufficiently regulated. As evidence of the latter assertion, Khan cited an action by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who signed a letter circulated by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that was sent to members of the US Congress seeking more regulation of the dietary supplements industry.
A third reason Khan put forth for her action was the most controversial, in that she makes a case that the use of weight loss supplements can cause eating disorders.
“Not only are these dietary supplements a possible trigger for eating disorders, causing life threatening mental and physical damage, but the ingredients are associated with serious health risks such as cancer, heart attack, stroke and even death” she said.
In the fact sheet she provided, Khan asserts that, “supplements for weight loss and muscle building are linked with eating disorders as well as body dysmorphic disorder. More than 30 percent of children and adolescents take dietary supplements on a regular basis, and 11% of teens report ever using dietary supplements for weight loss. An estimated 300,000 Massachusetts residents suffer from eating disorders.”
Sources within and familiar with the dietary supplement industry were quick to cite weakness with both the chapter and verse of Khan’s arguments. Dan Fabricant, CEO and executive director of the Natural Products Association, said that while some underage consumers suffering from eating disorders might use weight loss or muscle supplements, no causal link has ever been established between the two.
“The FDA already gets serious adverse events reports on supplements and the federal government could have established a causal link and they haven’t done so because there isn’t one there,” Fabricant said.
“We are happy to talk about a core problem but there doesn’t seem to be one here. We think the premise is crazy. This bill would put greater warning labels on these supplements than you find on cough and cold medications. And in the case of restricting the sale of those products, they had to at least have some data to prove that these products were actually being abused,” he said.
Conflation of issues
Jason Sapsin, a Denver-based attorney in the firm Faegre, Baker & Daniels, has experience both in the representation of food and supplement firms and in matters of public health policy, having done a Masters degree in the discipline at Johns Hopkins University. Sapsin said there is much to question in Khan’s approach.
“I know there was a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Toronto in August where it was discussed how the overuse of dietary supplements for muscle building and weight loss could in and of itself be considered an eating disorder. But that data came from adult patients, and in any case it is a much different thing than saying that these products actually cause anorexia nervosa or bulimia,” Sapsin said.
Sapsin said there was also problems with the fine points of Khan’s proposed bill. “There seems to be a conflation of two different things. There is a problem with adulterated products that she identifies. That is a separate issue of whether the availability of safe and legal dietary supplements somehow contributes to the blossoming of eating disorders in children under the age of 18,” he said
“Does it make sense to screen off an entire category of products which if made properly and lawfully should be absolutely safe to use, or does it make more sense to say as a society we are going to spend the amount of energy and money necessary to weed out the bad apples?” Sapsin said.
Fabricant said that NPA is urging its members within the state and elsewhere and other stakeholders in the industry to communicate directly with Massachusetts lawmakers via a grassroots effort sponsored by the organization. To participate, click here.