Supplement Sellers Mislead Elderly, Give Potentially Dangerous Advice

Some older customers were told that they could stop taking prescription drugs if they bought a dietary supplement.  Others heard that they could reduce their insulin or stop using it altogether.

Sellers promised that supplements would prevent high blood pressure or Alzheimer’s.  Some said the supplements could cure cancer.

During an investigation by the General Accounting Office, GAO investigators reviewed claims on websites selling dietary supplements and visited or phoned retail stores posing as elderly customers.  They found that the sellers broke FDA rules that forbid them to say that supplements can prevent, treat, or cure disease.  Some advice they gave customers was dangerous.

GAO also tested the 40 most popular supplements for contaminants including lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and pesticides.  37 of the 40 contained some contaminants, although not at a dangerous level when taken at recommended doses.  However, the risk of overdose or of contaminants building up in an individual’s system still existed.  Eighteen contained pesticides.

In testimony before the Senate Special Committee on Aging,  Gregory D. Kutz, Managing Director of Forensic Audits and Special Investigations for the GAO,  described the study and its results.  Among what they discovered:

  • Labeling said that garlic could prevent and/or cure diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer.
  • Ginseng labeling said that it had “Powerful Anti-cancer Function” and that it could prevent diabetes and heart disease.
  • A customer was told it was safe to take ginko biloba with aspirin, a combination the FDA says can increase the risk of internal bleeding.
  • A salesperson told a GAO representative that she could substitute a garlic supplement for her high blood pressure medicine.

What the GAO reported:

Certain dietary supplements commonly used by the elderly were deceptively or questionably marketed. FDA statutes and regulations do not permit sellers to make claims that their products can treat, prevent, or cure specific diseases. However, in several cases, written sales materials for products sold through online retailers claimed that herbal dietary supplements could treat, prevent, or cure conditions such as diabetes, cancer, or cardiovascular disease.

Hear tapes of some of the conversations GAO investigators had with retail sellers of dietary supplements.

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