Ten years ago, a U.S. senator from Illinois tried to derail the entire supplement industry. Fortunately, it didn’t work. The supplement industry persevered.
But now he’s trying a different tactic.
He’s trying to get the government to treat vitamins in some of the same ways it treats drugs…with increased FDA oversight and increased labeling. Ultimately, he wants complete government control over the supplement industry.
Just what does a U.S. senator from Illinois have against vitamins?
Your guess is as good as mine. But to figure it out, we have to travel back in time 20 years to 1993. That’s the year Congress passed DSHEA–the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act.
My friends Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) championed the legislation in the Senate. Reps. Bill Richardson (D-NM), Frank Pallone (D-NJ), and Dan Burton (R-IN) led the bipartisan efforts in the House.
Even today, DSHEA remains a critically important piece of legislation that affects the health of all Americans. Basically, the law states that manufacturers must make sure their supplement or dietary ingredient is safe and pure before they market it to the public. The law also gives the FDA authority to take action against any unsafe dietary supplement after it reaches the market.
It’s a good law, crafted by staunch leaders from both political parties.
It should always work this way when Congress drafts legislation that affects tens of millions of Americans and their health. And when it affects a good portion of the economy besides.
In the 1960s, we saw a similar bipartisan effort with the passage of Medicare. Back then, Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-IL) and Sen. Lyndon Johnson (D-TX), even before he became President, led the way in crafting and passing that landmark piece of legislation.
Unfortunately, none of this bipartisan leadership was on display for Congress’ latest piece of healthcare legislation, the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
But back to DSHEA…
In 2003, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform held hearings to review the 10-year-old law. They called the hearings “DSHEA–Ten Years After.” Dan Burton chaired the Government Reform Committee. He also asked me personally to testify at the hearings.
You see, by 2003, DSHEA was not working entirely as intended by the original legislation. This was one reason why Congress wanted to review it.
To fix some of the problems, the bipartisan group added new guidelines that do help regulate the safety, purity, content, labeling, etc. of dietary supplements today.
Nevertheless, many “know-nothing” politicians and mainstream medical researchers and practitioners still made (and continue to make) ignorant claims that “supplements are not regulated.”
And that’s simply not true.
Maybe we should excuse their ignorance. Especially since the FDA Commissioner herself once made a statement before Congress that supplements are not regulated.
The fact is, the problems we saw in 2003 were not with the original DSHEA legislation. But with the poor job the FDA did (and still does) with administering and implementing the law.
Congress did its job. It made a good law that protects citizens from unsafe supplements. But as usual, unelected and unaccountable federal bureaucrats stepped in to administer their own version of the law.
That is why the Congressional Government Reform Committee held the hearings in 2003. In fact, the very existence of this committee confirms the constant need to fix problems with new laws.
In the end, we believed two main things were not working about DSHEA.
First of all, the FDA had still not published Good Manufacturing Process (GMP) guidelines as required by DSHEA. These guidelines were supposed to set technical specifications and quality control standards for the manufacturing of dietary supplements.
But many supplement manufacturers in 2003 were already producing high-quality products that people actually wanted and were willing to pay for. These top manufacturers already complied with all the government paperwork. Plus, they were already running rings around the FDA with GMPs. In addition, their quality control standards already met or exceeded the FDA’s eventual guidelines.
But in 2003, the FDA still hadn’t set those guidelines. And that was a huge problem. In fact, it took the FDA another five years after those 2003 hearings to issue the new GMPs. Heavens knows why the FDA couldn’t accomplish this one task. Essentially, all they had to do was create another piece of paper–the one thing bureaucrats generally excel at!
The other DSHEA failure we planned to discuss in 2003 was poor education about supplements. Too many doctors, patients, pharmacists, and health bureaucrats remained ignorant about dietary supplements. They also remained ignorant about the provisions of the law.
This is why they brought me in. As an “integrative medicine” expert, I could help bridge the gap in understanding between mainstream medicine and alternative, natural approaches. I had also assembled the first medical textbook on the topic of integrative medicine. (Now, that textbook is going into its 5th edition.) At the time, I was also running one of the first “integrative medicine” clinics in the country at a major university hospital medical center.
So, there I was, 10 years ago, on Capitol Hill, preparing to testify to the House Government Reform Committee as an “integrative medicine” expert.
Rep. Burton had carefully put together his agenda for the hearings. We were all prepared, assembled, and ready to go when Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) popped in, unannounced.
He wasted precious time speaking pompously about the shortcomings of DSHEA. (But remember, these were actually the shortcomings of the FDA. And everyone there knew this already. As I said earlier, it’s why we were in front of the Government Reform Committee.)
Of course, as part of Congressional custom, this interloper from the great state of Illinois was allowed carte blanche to walk in unannounced. And allowed to go on and on about the obvious. Apparently, he wanted to deflect blame from the FDA onto the dietary supplements industry.
The net result was that all the scheduled speakers–true experts, experienced patients, practitioners, scientists, and educators–were all cut short. We had to rush through the actual facts and data we had come to present by sworn testimony under oath.
Of course, like a shyster lawyer in the county courthouse, Sen. Durbin did not take an oath. Nor did he even come close to speaking the truth. Sen. Durbin may be from the “Land of Lincoln,” but he is not another Lincoln.
Honestly, I had almost forgotten (or at least tried to forget) about Sen. Durbin. But this month, I saw that he’s back again. This time, he’s written his own legislation to supplant DSHEA. In fact, it would give the FDA almost complete control over the “dangerous” supplement industry.
Apparently, the senior senator from Illinois hasn’t changed his tune since 2003. But Congress and the White House have. And that worries me.