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Should Those Selling Natural Cures and Supplements Get a Free Ride When It Comes to COI?

by Arthur Caplan, Ph.D.

Earlier this week I was a guest on a Pennsylvania public television show.  The topic was the safety of GMO foods.  One of the guests who appeared with me was the owner of a natural foods and supplements store.  He was no fan of GMOs.  He cited many ailments and woes he claimed were associated with eating GMO foods ranging from cancer to Parkinsonism to infertility.  Put aside the fact that no major scientific or medical group has found any reason to be concerned about the safety of GMOs.  And ignore the fact that it is hard to think of any risk or danger that can cause the litany of misery the natural food and supplement purveyor claimed could be laid at the causal feet of GMOs.  What was strange was that a person who makes his living selling natural and organic items, was not seen as having a conflict of interest when he impugned GMOs.  The guy makes a living selling what are almost always expensive foods and supplements and yet no one but me challenged the fact that this source of income might give him reason to be a bit hostile to the competition—-GMO based food.

When I got home I fired up my computer and checked the news only to be greeted by headlines reporting that the former Governor of Virginia and his wife have been indicted by Federal authorities on corruption charges including taking gifts, vacations, seeking stock for insider prices and loans.  What was not so clear was that the source of these alleged shenanigans was,— a supplements company.  Virginia-based Star Scientific allegedly

“…participated in a scheme to use Robert McDonnell’s official position as the governor of Virginia to enrich the defendants and their family members by soliciting and obtaining payments, loans, gifts, and other things of value from [Williams] and Star Scientific.”

Star Scientific is a major supplements company valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  But, their role in the alleged influence peddling scheme was not the focus in many of the corruption stories.  Imagine what the headlines would read if it had been Pfizer, Amgen, Merck or Novartis as the agents trying to use the Governor to their advantage.  None of the companies would even think about the kind of influence peddling that Star Scientific is charged with using to push their products with a sitting Governor without being eviscerated in the press.

Half of Americans use supplements.  They spend at least 34 billion, almost a third of what they spend out of pocket on prescription drugs, on natural and herbal supplements.

That sum ought to be enough to end the notion that those peddling the natural and the organic do not have a dog in the fight over what works and what does not when it comes to GMOs, medicines and pills for health promotion.  The media ought to start holding this industry to the same conflict of interest standard as they do other big corporate players in the health care space.  There is a lot of money being thrown around in the supplements business and those throwing it ought to be called to account for how that money influences their views about safety and efficacy in their fight for healthcare dollars.

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