15 July 2008
The Great Supplement Swindle...
I work on a regulated industry. My civilian career is governed by organizations like the FDA, EPA, OSHA and others too numerous to mention. Routinely my facility is inspected, scrutinized and I have even had to submit information to congressional committees. This, I believe, is a good thing. Someone needs to watch over the firms providing public services. It is reasonable to check on airlines, food producers and others who possibly could affect the health and welfare of the public at large. There is a lot of pressure to take short cuts to preserve profits, maintain competitiveness and sustain one's business. VLC's (Very Large Corporations) are under intense scrutiny to comply. They represent deep pockets and consumers routinely target them with litigation, complaints and queries.
The sheer size and scale of the modern corporation is such that it presents a monolithic appearance to the outside world. It can appear impersonal and intimidating. Past performance of some firms in the 1970s and earlier has been less than perfect in the stewardship of their constituency. Even today, scandals rocking the financial world engender a deep distrust of corporate entities. Without sounding too much like a spokesperson for the entire corporate culture, let me offer some observations from inside.
Earlier in my career I worked for a multi-national which got involved in a consumer safety issue. Unlike Johnson and Johnson's handling of the Tylenol crisis, this firm took a far more hands off approach to a real threat to its integrity. As such, the market punished this firm ruthlessly (more than half its market share evaporated overnight) and it was acquired by another firm which collected the remains of a once dominant company. This occurred almost two decades ago, long before the instantaneous transmission of information via the internet and the twenty-four hour news cycle.
In the 21st century, corporations are being held to increasingly strict standards of behavior. Consumers are better equipped than ever and information is only a keystroke away. And yet there exists a remaining realm of shadowy uncertainty. Within the United States, nutritional supplements are a realm of para-regulated products which may (or may not) be helpful to the public. Websites promising fantastic results tread the line between deception and marketing. Each of these products is marketed with the standard disclaimer that the products' claims have not been evaluated by the FDA nor is their product designed to treat, cure or diagnose any disease. As a consumer, I would stop and rethink my purchase based upon such a caveat. And yet the supplement industry is a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
Many supplements are manufactured by major pharmaceutical firms (Bayer, etc.). Some are produced by large, standalone supplement companies such as Boiron. These companies report expenditures to the financial markets in similar formats. What is noted is the gap between R&D spending for the traditional pharmaceutical (also known as Big Pharma - oooh, can't you feel the evil!!) and supplement only companies. In most cases, the sales and advertising dollars are disproportionately high among the supplement only companies. Why is this? Wouldn't you expect that these firms would be researching new products, providing benefits to their customers, on a regular basis?
The simple fact is often that there is no research because their is no good effect (typically there is no negative effect either). The supplement only companies sell hope in a pill, elixir, tincture or powder. Sometimes there is some basic research to support claims - the body needs vitamins, for example - but most often the claims are vague or even misstated. These firms count on the public's ignorance of science and desire for self-improvement not involving traditional hard work (diet and exercise) or acknowledgement of a real medical issue (depression, etc.). Whole industries have sprung up preying upon the public suspicions of traditional institutions. In most cases these industries are loosely or un-regulated. They are quick to fan the flames of doubt and dissatisfaction but even quicker to divert objective analysis of their own offerings.
Next time you go grocery shopping, walk down the supplement aisle. Take some time and really peruse the labels of what is offered for sale. Look at the manufacturer's claims and then apply a little of Occam's Razor to them.
Remember, if it sounds too good to be true - it probably is.