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The dietary supplements had ominous names, like Black Widow and Yellow Scorpion. They contained an illegal and potentially dangerous molecule, similar in structure to amphetamines.

But when a Harvard researcher dared to point that out, in a scientific, peer-reviewed study and in media interviews, the supplement maker sued him for libel and slander.

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  • As a retired physician I applaud Dr Cohen, I rued the day that the US Congress opened this area of”Vitamins and supplements” to be free of FDA requirement to be able to prove any medical benefit claims made. It made fortunes for unscrupulous hucksters like this guy and exposed an unsuspecting public to useless and or dangerous products. Most still think this stuff is checked, and they are protectedfrom such quakery.

  • Great journalism!! We need people like Dr. Cohen and Ms. Robbins to protect the public from people who think they are above the law and could care less about the people who buy their products. As long as they make a buck.

  • Seems that the meaning of honesty, logic, facts, and evidence are on trial too.
    Manufacturers should be honest about what is in their supplements. If BMPEA is not found in Acadia rigidula where is it coming from? In the absence of a simple response from the company, it’s logical to suggest it is synthetic and an additive, but the manufacturer is supposed to be able to answer the question as to where it came from. I don’t claim more than passing familiarity with the DHSEA, but I think they are required to provide formulation information. If BMPEA is coming from some other source it should be something that can be determined rationally.

    Many of the posts comment on beliefs and values. Nobody is disputing this company is putting BMPEA in their products, but the source isn’t disclosed, or at least there is no factual basis that it comes from the plant they say it is from. It appears to be fraudulent to say it is coming from Acadia rigidula (sounds like a better source for Viagra.)

    One of the greatest tragedies of life is the murder of a beautiful theory by a gang of brutal facts.
    — Benjamin Franklin

    The difference between discussion and argument is eloquently, and humorously, displayed in this post:

  • An individual has as much right to take a dubious supplement as to engage in risky sex; and to live with and pay for the consequences. If a pill consumer feels harmed or defrauded, let him sue.

    • The situation is not about one’s right to take a supplement. The situation is about trust. Basically, Cohen’s studies have shown that one cannot trust supplement manufacturers, all manufacturers. Supplement manufacturers like religions depend on faith and blind trust. Both, without proof or evidence, conspire to convince that their power is necessary for the enhancement of life. Consumers are often too trusting or too desperate. Cohen is the crack that lets the light in.

    • There are too may useful compounds that the drug companies would suppress access to only because they compete with sometimes less effective, patented drugs they own. Look at the case of red yeast rice EXTRACT. Let me decide unless there is proof of harm not prominently stated by the seller.

  • Comparing the supplement industry to pharmaceuticals is apples and oranges. The statistics clearly show that dietary supplements are safer resulting in much lower %’s of adverse reactions and death. It is mentioned that dietary supplements do not have to prove their products are safe and effective yet Pharmaceutical studies often times show that their drugs are indeed dangerous and kill people. Take a look at the long list of adverse reactions on drug inserts. Every single side effect listed (including death) is listed because the clinical studies/trials caused those side effects (including death). Big Pharma has big lobbyists, dietary supplements have no lobbyists…….think about that….

    • The multi-billion dollar dietary supplement industry in the U.S. does, indeed, have lobbyists. Right now, the industry is lobbying against the FDA’s proposal to introduce measure that would require safety studies on ingredients that have no history of human consumption in the U.S. before they are allowed in the marketplace. Moreover, any dietary supplement marketed with claims that it effects the structure or function of the body must be backed up with clinical studies to demonstrate those effects. Requirements of safety and effectiveness were laid out in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. As for showing less adverse effects compared to pharmaceuticals, they also have less effectiveness, if any, against all sorts of diseases and medical conditions.

    • Please do not make false claims with such confidence. First, side-effects mentioned in drug inserts are all side-effects observed, regardless of whether those can be causally linked to the treatment. In a clinical trial with a painkiller, a person reporting “pain” means this is to be listed as a side-effect. Period.
      Herbal medicine is not required to list any side-effects, even though these have been observed. That includes “death”, by the way.

      The claim that dietary supplements has no lobbyists is also provingly false. For example, the “Coalition to Preserve DSHEA” alone spent 135,000 dollar on lobbying activities in 2009. The “Council for Responsible Nutrition” has been working for over a decade with Washington lobbyists. The link below shows how much it has been spending on lobbying activities:
      Or how about the Natural Products Association?
      This should be no surprise, since the dietary supplement industry has a turnover of over 35 billion US dollar in the US alone.

  • Let’s be clear: Although Pieter Cohen has made himself an enemy of the supplement industry at large – including of safe, traditional products correctly made – the entity attacking him here is not “the dietary supplement industry.” This guy Wheat was not selling supplements, but illegal, misbranded drugs. Those who want prohibition of herbal products sometimes argue that supplements should be banned because they can provide cover for illegal drugs. However, conventional foods such as energy drinks can also be adulterated; there’s even been a drugged coffee marketed for sexual enhancement. Ban botanicals, and you lose many products with scientifically proven benefits, while the makers of steroid and amphetamine analogues will still find ways of distributing their wares to willing ignoramuses.

    By the way, Pieter Cohen does NOT have a good reputation even among his opponents. He has an unpleasant reputation as someone who not only wishes to take away the public’s right to use botanicals, but ignores and rejects any science that shows benefit for botanicals and, because he thereby isn’t prepared to win a scientific debate, falls back on ad hominem arguments against those who do not share his beliefs and values.

    • Jane, can you provide evidence that Cohen wishes to take away the public’s right to use botanicals, ignores and rejects any science that shows benefits, and therefore falls back on ad hominem arguments?

      Please be as specific as possible, with links.

    • Marco – I have personally witnessed Cohen speaking at a scientific meeting. He treated his own colleagues with contempt, accused audience members who asked hard questions of being affiliated with “industry” (in place of answering the questions), and demanded that in considering appropriate regulations for supplements, the audience adopt the assumption that all supplements had no health benefits whatsoever. Obviously, I cannot provide a Link to this experience, but it was memorable. Before that meeting, I had only a vaguely negative opinion of Cohen based on his expressed hostility to the 1994 law that protected the continued sale of grandfathered herbal, vitamin and mineral products. (He’s written a whole book and multiple editorials promoting his opinions; they’re hardly a secret.) After that event, I had a profoundly negative view. He did not seem to be prepared or able to carry on an intellectual debate with people who held different values.

    • Jane, thank you for the response. Indeed I can do little with a personal story, especially since I fully support Cohen’s criticism of the DSHEA. I thus likely hold the same values as Cohen in that I agree dietary supplements should not have any health claims, unless those health claims have been shown to be true in proper clinical studies. That is, one should indeed take the a priori position that a specific dietary supplement does not have any health benefits.

      Let me supplement (pun intended) that comment by saying I have had some students look at a ‘natural medicine’ that boasts it contains a protein that is a natural antibiotic. Both claims are likely true (the protein indeed is a natural antibiotic, and the protein indeed may be present in the product), but we’ve been unable to ascertain its presence in an amount required to have some actual clinical effects.

    • Marco – Thanks for your thoughtful response. Under DSHEA, dietary supplements may not make disease claims even if supporting evidence from clinical trials is available. Structure-function claims are supposed to have supporting evidence, but sometimes are indeed exaggerated or inaccurate. However, it’s one thing to say that a manufacturer of echinacea tincture should not be permitted to say that it relieves colds, “helps maintain a healthy immune system” or what have you, and another thing to say that I, and others who know from other sources what it is good for, should not be permitted to purchase it.

      RS – I suspect you aren’t interested in a real discussion, given your use of scare quotes around “botanicals” and your demand for a single reference showing benefit for a botanical, when globally there have now been thousands of modern-style double-blind clinical trials that showed benefit for botanicals. In case I am wrong, to continue the echinacea theme, I’ll suggest the following as a starting point:

      Jawad et al. Safety and efficacy profile of Echinacea purpurea to prevent common cold episodes: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med 2012:841315.

      Raus et al. Effect of an Echinacea-based hot drink versus oseltamivir in influenza treatment: a randomized, double-blind, double-dummy, multicenter, noninferiority clinical trial. Curr Ther Res Clin Exp 2015;77:66-72.

      I’ll leave it at that – time to get back to work.

    • @jane

      The reason I asked for articles on “botanicals” was to determine whether you had the critical thinking or training required to engage in a scientific discussion. The references provided the answer I was looking. Back to whatever you were doing.

    • Jane, I cannot find any evidence that Cohen has said you, as a consumer, should not be allowed to take these products. He has repeatedly expressed concern about the quality of the products and the truthfulness of the claimed contents (and with good reasons), but I’ve yet to see any example where he said that all botanical products should be banned or the like.

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