Science-based pharmacy: supplements, deck stacked against consumers

Posted 27 September 2015

Scott Gavura is the pharmacist behind Science-Based Pharmacy. In a post of  24 September 2015, titled Pine bark and ginkgo for tinnitus? A closer look at “Ear Tone”, a supplement marketed to treat tinnitushe makes a number of points about why he blogs which I share and identify with. He writes (extracts):

“Why do you bother blogging?” asked a colleague. “You take hours of your personal time to write, and you do it for free.

I blog for the same reason that I became a pharmacist: to help people use medicines more effectively.

Yes I do get regular hate mail, and the occasional legal threat, but there’s also gratitude for a post that resonated with someone, or helped them make better decisions about their health.

When buying supplements, the deck is stacked against consumers
One of my recurring (and favourite) blog topics is evaluating the evidence supporting dietary supplements. Not only is it an opportunity to look at a specific medical condition, it’s a tool to illustrate how to use a science-based approach to answer medical questions. Supplements are also the perfect subject to illustrate the consequences of weak, ineffective health regulation, and how this approach harms consumers. Nowhere else in medicine is there an area that’s in such need of consumer advocacy and patient protection. While regulations will differ between countries, supplements tend to get a “pass” by most governments. This pass (which is usually in the form of special regulations), usually excludes supplements from the licensing requirements (and evidence standards) that applies to conventional drug products. It will vary somewhat depending on what country you live in, but in countries like the USA and Canada, this is what you’ll find:

  • There are few limits on what can be legally sold as a supplement or natural health product.
  • There are few limits on the health claims that can be made about these products.
  • There are few, if any, requirements to directly test supplements for safety.
  • There are often no requirements to test supplements for actual effectiveness.
  • Pharmacies and other retailers sell supplements alongside regular drug products, without distinguishing them.

The result is a marketplace that is a boon to supplement makers, but puts consumers at a considerable disadvantage. Worse, many health professionals also give supplements a pass, failing to hold them to the same evidence standards as drug products. Pharmacy shelves are becoming the “Wild West” of healthcare, where evidence-supported products are sold alongside those that are either unproven, or even worse, completely ineffective.

Of course, this applies exactly to South Africa: the deck is stacked against consumers.

Continue reading at Science-Based Pharmacy.

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