Consumer Health Digest #04-11

Your Weekly Update of News and Reviews
March 16, 2004

Consumer Health Digest is a free weekly e-mail newsletter edited by Stephen Barrett, M.D., and cosponsored by NCAHF and Quackwatch. It summarizes scientific reports; legislative developments; enforcement actions; news reports; Web site evaluations; recommended and nonrecommended books; and other information relevant to consumer protection and consumer decision-making.

FDA proposes anti-obesity action plan. Noting that Americans have been getting steadily fatter since the late 1980s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has released a report by its Obesity Working Group. The report states that about 64% of American adults are overweight and more than 30% are obese, which places them at greater risk for coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. The group's recommendations are based on the scientific fact that weight control is mainly a function of caloric balance; that is, calories in must equal calories out. The recommendations include:

The full report and a summary are available on the FDA Web site.

Magic Johnson endorses bogus "immune-booster." Natrol, Inc., of Chatsworth, California, has hired former basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson to promote a dietary supplement that he says he uses daily because it "promotes healthy immune function and offers every day immune enhancement." Johnson announced his endorsement at a health exposition in California and is scheduled to appear in ads for the product in national health and fitness magazines in late April. He is also featured on Natrol's Web site. The product, called My Defense®, contains vitamin C and five plant extracts, one of which (larch arabinogalactan) has been shown to increase the production of certain cells that have immune functions. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 requires claims for dietary supplements be backed by substantiation that they are "truthful and not misleading." Natrol's Web site advises people to begin using the product "any time you feel immunity may be compromised." The fact that arabinogalactan can influence one of the immune system's many components does not mean that the product can protect the user against infection or has been proven beneficial. Although Natrol denies it, Johnson was obviously hired because he is well known to be a long-term HIV survivor. Dr. Stephen Barrett has asked the FDA and FTC to stop the misleading campaign.

Zymax marketers settle FTC charges. Lisa Levey (as executor of Michael Levey's estate), Gary Ballen, Bentley Myers International Co., Publisher's Data Services, Inc. and Nutritional Life, Inc. have settled charged that they made false and unsubstantiated claims that Zymax and MillinesES (both containing ephedra) and Serotril (containing St. John's wort) cause rapid and substantial weight loss without diet or exercise. The complaint also challenged claims that the ephedra products have no side effects. The complaint further alleged that the defendants made unsubstantiated claims that CartazyneDS, a dietary supplement containing glucosamine, "cures" arthritis and "rebuilds" cartilage "within days." The complaint charged that the defendants' ads used fictitious expert and consumer endorsements, and deceptive "before and after" pictures. The settlement requires the defendants to pay $2.2 million in consumer redress and to refrain from making unsubstantiated claims, using deceptive pictures and demonstrations; or misrepresenting tests, studies, research, or the identity or qualifications of any expert or other endorser. Commissioner Orson Swindle, who thought the settlement was too lenient, issued the following statement:

Although $2.2 million is a sizable amount of money, this payment is minuscule in comparison to the amount of the defendants' gross sales and consumer harm. In addition, the Levey family and Gary Ballen are both left with substantial assets. Although anyone can feel compassion for the Levey family given Michael Levey's death, this should not justify allowing the family to keep money that rightfully belongs to consumers who were deceived by the defendants' false health claims. Any settlement that leaves defendants or their families with substantial ill-gotten wealth not only sets a bad precedent but also shows, in a manner of speaking, that "crime does pay." [National marketers of dietary supplements settle FTC charges. FTC news release, March 9, 2004]

Androstenedione crackdown announced. HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson has announced a crackdown on companies that manufacture, market, and distribute products containing androstenedione ("andro"), which acts like a steroid once it is metabolized by the body and therefore poses health risks similar to those of steroids. Many such products are advertised as dietary supplements that supposedly enhance athletic performance by stimulating muscle growth and increasing testosterone production. As part of the crackdown, the FDA has sent letters warning 23 companies to stop distributing products sold as dietary supplements that contain androstenedione. Scientific evidence shows that when androstenedione is taken over time and in sufficient quantities, it can increase the risk of serious and life-threatening diseases. The potential long-term consequences in men include testicular atrophy, impotence, and the development of female characteristics such as breast enlargement. Women who use these products may develop male characteristics such as male pattern baldness, deepening of the voice, and increased facial hair. In addition, women may also develop enlargement of the clitoris, as well as abnormal menstrual cycles, abnormal menstrual bleeding, and blood clots. Women who use these products may also be at increased risk for breast cancer and endometrial cancer. Children who use these products are at risk of early onset of puberty and of premature cessation of bone growth. [Health effects of androstenedione. FDA white paper, March 11, 2004] The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Football League and the International Olympic Committee have banned use of androstenedione. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Endocrine Society, the American Medical Association, and other health professional groups have cautioned against the use of androgenic and anabolic steroids and their precursors. [HHS launches crackdown on products containing andro: FDA warns manufacturers to stop distributing such products. FDA press release, March 11, 2004]

ACSH publishes vaccination booklet. The American Council on Science and Health has published a 21-page booklet intended to reassure parents about immunization. The report addresses common myths about vaccines and discusses safety issues that have recently been in the news. Vaccinations: What Parents Need to Know can be read online or purchased for $5 from the Council at 1995 Broadway, 2nd floor, New York, NY 10023.

Skeptical chiropractic forum launched. An online discussion forum for the critical investigation of chiropractic topics has been launched by Allen Botnick, DC, who voluntarily surrendered his chiropractic licenses after concluding that his education had not prepared him to practice safely. He started Chirotalk because other discussion groups have expelled people who posted critical comments. Chirotalk is open to anyone who wants to discuss the problems associated with chiropractic theory and practice.

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