Beware of fake remedies sold as "dietary supplements"

September 4, 2009
Frederick S. Mayer, PharmD, MPH
Frederick S. Mayer, PharmD, MPH

Fred Mayer is a Drug Topics editorial advisor and CEO of Pharmacists Planning Service, Inc. (PPSI), a 501 C (3) nonprofit, public health, consumer, and pharmacy education organization. He welcomes comments at ppsi@aol.com.

,
Thomas H. Clarke Jr., JD, MS
Thomas H. Clarke Jr., JD, MS

Manufacturers, promoters, and sellers of dietary supplements are prohibited by law from making claims to treat or cure illness or disease, or their symptoms. Pharmacists should encourage patients to check with medical professionals before commencing use of any dietary supplement.

Key Points

Examples of fake cures

In a third case, the defendants sold a pill made from various plant extracts and claimed that it would (among other things): (a) eliminate the plaque from Alzheimer's, (b) repair neurons after a head injury or stroke, (c) reduce depression, (d) increase "brain energy," and (e) improve memory, concentration, and other cognitive functions. All these claims are false. They are also dangerous and put the health and life of the purchaser at risk, because such individuals may delay obtaining proper medical treatment for their condition.

The important lesson to be learned: Some manufacturers, promoters, and sellers will promise a potential purchaser anything - relief from any disease or illness, or from the symptoms - to get their hands on money.

What patients can do to protect themselves

Patients must be informed of the need for skepticism about any claim made for a dietary supplement, particularly if it sounds fantastic or miraculous.

Also, each patient needs to be encouraged to check with medical professionals. Answers need to address the following: (a) whether there are double-blind studies showing the product is effective for any condition, (b) an explanation of how the supplement functions pharmacologically, (c) what benefits, if any, the supplement may provide in terms of the patient's specific condition, (d) potential side effects, and (e) how the supplement may interact with other supplements and with prescription drugs. As a reference source, consider using one of several excellent databases, such as the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (http://www.naturaldatabase.com/), that provide current, accurate, and useful information on supplements.

Unfortunately, the agencies listed above are often overwhelmed with other priorities. Thus, you may also wish to suggest the patient consider hiring an attorney to represent the patient's interests in a civil lawsuit against the company that sold the product. Because the applicable law is very specialized, make sure you tell the patient to inquire about the attorney's experience in addressing issues of this type.

Some attorneys will work on a contingency basis or seek fees only from the defendants. In some states, such as California, attorneys may be entitled to obtain their fees from the defendants if they prevail in a class-action case; such actions do not require patients to pay such fees. Patients should discuss fee options with any attorney up front.

Frederick S. Mayer is president of PPSI, a not-for-profit consumer, public health, and pharmacy education foundation. Contact him at: ppsi@aol.com
. He also is a member of the Drug Topics editorial advisory board.

Thomas H. Clarke, Jr. is a senior partner in the San Francisco office of Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley and is the consumer advocate for PPSI. Contact him at: tclarke@rmkb.com
.