By Leslie Lousteau

Like to lose a few pounds? Want to improve your memory and lessen your chances of heart disease? Trying to stay awake for that all-nighter? Or maybe you need to sleep better. These are a few reasons why tens of millions of people across the nation are popping pills and supporting a seven billion-dollar a year scam. It’s a scam because the alternative medicine and dietary supplement industry is corrupted by companies who market worthless, dangerous and sometimes deadly products. The buzzword is “natural,” and consumers have fallen for it.

With the general social trend of the ’90’s toward what is “natural” has come a heightened interest in alternative medicine. People mistakenly assume that an “all-natural” pill will be more effective, work in better harmony with their bodies and bear fewer side effects than traditional drugs. Has everyone forgotten that poisonous mushrooms, snake venom and arsenic are “natural” too? Many prescription drugs are in fact derived from natural plant sources by synthesizing the active ingredient and isolating it from harmful byproducts. There is no scientific proof that our bodies prefer natural molecules to synthetic ones, but dietary supplement companies would have you think so as you empty your wallet for pills containing natural but often harmful and almost always useless ingredients.

The biggest problem with these so-called natural remedies is that they’ve been dubbed dietary supplements, not drugs. To market drugs, pharmaceutical companies must endure rigorous Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clinical testing for efficacy, side effects and dosage guidelines. Any consumer has access to an FDA-approved list of drugs, but there is no such list for dietary supplements. Dietary supplement companies have to follow a few labeling rules, and that’s all. Otherwise, they exist outside the jurisdiction of the FDA, so they answer to no one as they poison bodies with products having no medicinal value and often producing deleterious side effects. No standard doses are established, and in any given bottle of pills there is often high variance from pill to pill of the amount of supposed active ingredients (New York Times, “Americans Gamble on Herbs as edicine: With Few Regulations No Guarantee of Quality,” page D1).

Under the title “dietary supplement,” extremely harmful herbs such as sassafras and chaparral are still sold today. Sassafras is taken as a stimulant, sweat-producer and treatment for syphilis but has been banned by the FDA from use in food because it contains a known carcinogen. Chaparral can cause hepatitis and liver failure, but it is commonly sold to treat arthritis, cancer, pain and colds (page D1). Dieter’s Teas are also widely available to aid in weight loss, but they were the contributing factor to the deaths of four young women (www.quackwatch.com). Manufacturers play on the common misconception that increased bowel movements allow fewer calories to be absorbed by the body.

Why would any human being stoop to deceit only to inflict harm on so many innocent people? Money. What else? Many of these companies save millions by evading the clinical testing that would likely put them out of business. Then there’s the old adage of supply and demand: everyone’s after dietary supplements these days, so natural sources are being depleted and the consumer pays more. It’s no surprise, then, that manufacturers pack their pills with fillers such as cheap powders, salts to save on the active ingredients for which you’re paying (New York Times, page D1). They’ve crafted a well thought-out scam that’s extremely profitable and often carries deadly results. Don’t fall prey. Businessmen are not doctors.

Adding insult to injury, Representative Dan Burton R-Indiana held hearings on Feb. 27 at which the renowned expert Jane Seymour (you know, “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”) explained how the big bully FDA is denying Americans access to valuable alternative medicines (www.house.gov). Yes, they want further deregulation of the already reckless industry. Let your congressmen know that you won’t stand for it. If you wish to support a lobbying effort to oppose Dr. Quinn and to demand stricter enforcement of existing laws, please contact us.

Maggie Czarnogorski is a senior in the College, Leslie Lousteau is a junior in the College, Irena Politzer is a junior in the College and Emma Salustro is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service

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