Tobacco and Dietary Supplements – The Role of the FDA

By Joanna Sax

Thank you for inviting me to blog.  Later this week, I’ll be attending Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Annual Conference on the FDA in the 21st Century.  My paper/presentation addresses the role of the FDA in the regulation of dietary supplements.  By way of preview, my paper compares similarities between the dietary supplement industry and tobacco.  Both industries have successfully avoided heavy regulation by the FDA. 

A tension exists between the personal choice/autonomy to use a variety of dietary supplements with the actual or potential health danger.  With the current light-handed regulation, costs for dietary supplements are much lower than they would be if they had to be approved by the FDA prior to market.  Some consumers believe that if a product says it is ‘natural’ then it must be safe.  This, however, is not necessarily true.  Would you eat any wild plant or mushroom just because it is natural?  I hope not.  In recent years, a number of adverse events, including death, have been shown to be correlated or caused by use of dietary supplements. 

It seems that some of the tactics employed by the tobacco industry to avoid regulation are similar to tactics employed by the dietary supplement industry.  My paper/presentation addresses what lessons we can learn from the tobacco industry to analyze if the FDA should be granted the authority to increase the regulation of the dietary supplement industry.  I hope to see you all in Boston.

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