Dietary supplements are dominating headlines these days – and not in a good way. Last Wednesday, Nevada officials found basketball star Lamar Odom unconscious at a brothel after taking cocaine along with ten pills of Reload, a sexual enhancement dietary supplement. That same week, the New England Journal of Medicine released an article finding that dietary supplements lead to roughly 23,000 emergency visits a year. Following these events, some officials have called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take a stronger role in regulating the dietary supplement industry.
Dietary supplements have had a long and storied past. As early as 1973, FDA tried to regulate dietary supplements regarding vitamin and mineral potency. The dietary supplement industry responded by challenging FDA in court, and Congress subsequently enacted the Proxmire Amendment, limiting FDA’s authority to regulate dietary supplements. However, by the 1990s, as consumers increasingly began to rely on dietary supplements, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, expanding FDA’s authority to regulate supplements by enacting special rules related to dietary supplement labeling and manufacturing.
Currently, FDA regulates dietary supplements as a special category of foods. Unlike manufacturers of over-the-counter drugs, dietary supplement manufacturers do not need to be registered with FDA and do not need list possible adverse events on supplement labeling. As Joanna Sax points out, this is a major problem because not all dietary supplements are the same. For example, certain weight loss or sexual enhancement supplements often contain chemicals associated with potentially serious side effects while other supplements containing chemicals such as Vitamin C pose less serious safety concerns.