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Bioflavonoids, pipsissewa, shizandra, and other cure-alls.

As reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association last September, a 20-year old woman died of aplastic anema (a rare blood disease) after taking tanning pills supplied to her by a commercial tanning salon. Tanning pills, as we've previously said, are illegal in this country. They contain canthaxanthin, a chemical related to beta carotene. While beta carotene, which occurs in carrots and other vegetables and fruits, is an important nutrient, canthaxanthin has no known benefit to humans. In the large amounts found in tanning pills, canthaxanthin can cause severe side-effects, including skin eruptions and loss of night vision. It also produces a very unsatisfactory, bright orange "tan." It has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in very small quantities as a food coloring, and it's also used in chicken feed to turn egg yolks and chicken fat deep yellow. The doctors who treated the young woman who died did not claim to have linked the canthaxanthin conclusively to the disease that killed her. Still, they said, "the use of the drug for cosmetic purposes does not justify this risk."

Tanning pills and other such products constitute a business that adds up to billions of dollars annually--an unofficial, untested pharmacopeia that is sold by mail order as well as in retail stores all over the country. Go into almost any health-food store and you'll find a large range of pills, powders, and preparations: bioflavonoids, amino acids, vitamin and mineral supplements, and a catalogue of herbal remedies that runs from pipsissewa to lobelia to valerian to shizandra. Even the most expert botanist or chemist might not recognize all the names.

The FDA is the agency responsible for ensuring the safety and efficacy of drugs. But the preparations that the FDA is not required or permitted to regulate may constitute a larger share of the market than the ones it does regulate. How does the unregulated drug industry operate outside the law? The FDA regulates on those products that claim to be useful in diagnosing, curing, mitigating, or preventing disease, or those that affect the structure and function of the body. Drug companies must submit evidence to the FDA that a product is safe and effective before marketing it.

Double messages, weasel words

But manufacturers who market their ware without FDA approval know how to stay ahead of the law. They make no claims on the bottles or packages, and many products that are promoted in catalogues as drugs are marketed as foods, which conform to less stringent government regulations. If a customer in a health-food store tells his troubles to a salesclerk, a wide spectrum of products will be offered. Customers are also given leaflets and catalogues that claim potent medicinal properties for nearly every product listed. Of course, these catalogues usually carry a disclaimer in tiny type on every page--a double message if ever there was one.

Mail-order catalogues, too, are free to say almost anything--until the U.S. Postal Service catches up with them, which seldom happens. By the time a company can be hauled into court for mail fraud, another has taken its place. Nearly every herbal remedy in one typical catalogue (Stur-dee Health Products, a New York company) claims to "purify the blood." And much, much more: "combats kidney stone formation, urinary problems, impotence, gout." "Fights bad breath, eases menstrual cramps, clears up infections." "Nourishes heart, liver, and sexual energies." "Overcomes addiction and depression." On just a single page you'll find nostrums to lower your blood cholesterol, take pounds off your hips, guarantee a good night's sleep. And in dozen of ads in magazines, there are self-proclaimed cures for cancer, arthritis, and even AIDS.

But aside from raising false hopes and wasting people's money, these products can have truly disastrous side effects. L-tryptophan, peddled as a cure-all for sleeplessness, depression, and other ailments, was finally ordered off the market in 1989. It was implicated in an outbreak of a rare and incurable blood disease, which killed at least 27 people. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of herbals and other self-styled remedies is that while most may be harmless, others are not. The problem is that no one knows--least of all the marketer who is pushing the stuff. In addition, even if they do no harm, using them may delay, or take the lace of, a treatment that might really be effective.
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Title Annotation:includes information on where to report a scam; dangers of vitamin & mineral supplements & herbal remedies
Publication:The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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