Sen. Durbin’s vendetta against supplements

Durbin pushed for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to “do something” about energy drinks last year after the agency published a few “adverse event reports” (AER) loosely tied with consumption of these drinks.

From 2008 to 2011, there were around 6,000 adverse event reports resulting from the use of supplements. That seems like a lot, but that is over a span of three years. In comparison, in 2008 alone there were 526,527 AERs as a result of prescription drugs and 26,517 AERs connected to vaccines. That same year, only 1,080 AERs were reported about dietary supplements.

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The Dietary Supplemental Labeling Act gives the FDA more power to regulate supplemental and dietary ingredients, which may include your favorite energy drink or vitamin. In effect, the agency would begin to treat supplements as if they were medicines. The bill’s new regulations would require warning labels and impose new restrictions on what can be produced. This could have huge adverse effects on any business manufacturing supplements.

For example, earlier this year, Wrigley pulled a new caffeinated gum product when the FDA announced that it was considering regulations for products with added caffeine. Durbin’s proposed legislation could have a similar chilling effect on new product development.

All this would be done for perceived dangers that are speculative at best. As my colleague Michelle Minton pointed out after Durbin introduced his bill last year, when you consider the amount of energy drinks sold every year, the small number of incidences appears less likely to be tied to energy drink consumption. “Taking into consideration the millions of energy drinks—not to mention energy supplements and coffee—that people consume every day without incident, the number of cases where someone has suffered adverse effects from consuming such products is so small as to be statistically insignificant,” she wrote.

Furthermore, Durbin, in introducing this legislation, simply ignores the fact that consumers who want caffeine or some sort of supplement will turn to other alternatives. There is a Starbucks on virtually every corner, after all. And the demise of caffeinated alcoholic drinks hasn’t stopped people from ordering rum and cokes at their favorite bar.

Product safety is important, and contrary to what Durbin and some of his political allies may believe, it is not solely the province of government. The free market actually encourages companies to produce safe products. When companies put out dangerous products, consumers remember. For example, Firestone is still reeling from the PR disaster associated with exploding tires it manufactured 13 years ago.

When the market demands information from consumers, companies respond. Consumers who want to know what is in their energy drinks and dietary supplements already have information on the active ingredients available to them if they want it.

Of course, not everyone is interested in consuming dietary supplements or energy drinks, but everyone should be concerned about the Dietary Supplemental Labeling Act. Durbin’s bill will expand government control over what we choose to put in our own bodies. It is important for consumers to speak up against this “government knows best” approach now.

Thatcher is an analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank.