Submitted as a guest editorial by Suzanne Jenkins, November 20, 2011
What happened to the media that investigates and reports both sides of the story? The practice of denigrating dietary supplements and raising public concern over “safety” has been elevated to an art form by the media. Sound bites and articles with such titles as, “Vitamins May Kill Elderly Americans,” ignore the number of documented deaths caused by prescription drugs. Without both sides of the story, media is playing with half a deck – when this happens in oppressed countries, we call it propaganda.
The current rant over the safety of dietary supplements is really not about safety. Lack of “safety” is being touted as the main reason supplements are under siege. However, ignored by the media is the Adverse Events Reporting System (AERS) of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which contains over 4 million adverse events reported from 1969 to the present for FDA approved drugs. From 2000 to 2009, the FDA AERS received 370,056 reports of deaths and 2,345,066 reports of serious patient outcomes from FDA approved drugs, NOT from dietary supplements. Eleven years ago on July 26, 2000, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that behind heart disease and cancer, American medicine was the 3rd leading cause of death.
The study inspiring the media to create confusion, “Dietary Supplements and Mortality Rate in Older Women: The Iowa Women’s Health Study,” was observational and not the double-blind placebo gold standard with controls on every test component. Doctors and scientists know that an observational study based on a self-reporting questionnaire does not prove cause and effect – but the reader wouldn’t know that from a flamboyant title that indicates sensationalism is more important than substance. Studies like these look for clues that should then lead to further research. They are not designed to be used to guide clinical medicine or public health recommendations.
The value of using dietary supplements to improve the health of the elderly, as well as the health of other sectors of the population, has been confirmed in published studies. The Lewin Group is a health care consulting firm that does policy research and data analysis on Medicare, etc. In their study, “A Study of the Cost Effects of Daily Multivitamins on Older Adults,” the Lewin Group summarized that “given the available evidence, we conclude that daily multivitamins can be beneficial for older adults. Because suboptimal nutrient intake has been linked to chronic disease, the risk from not taking a multivitamin outweighs the minimal risks of taking one.”
Various think tanks have determined that a significant number of older Americans are deficient in vitamins and trace elements and could benefit from taking a multivitamin. A study entitled, “Effect of Selected Dietary Supplements on Health Care Reduction,” commissioned by the Dietary Supplement Education Alliance and updated in 2007, found that taking four specific supplements could reduce health care cost by over $24 billion.
Reviews supporting the use of nutritional supplements have appeared in both JAMA and The New England Journal of Medicine. Some people, due to age, genetic predisposition, environmental insult, lifestyle choices, disability, or disease, have a heightened requirement for dietary supplements.
Media cannot fulfill its obligation to the public when the only source of information considered originates from government, corporations that represent conventional medicine, or sectors that serve both. Media shapes public opinion about dietary supplements with information coming from entities representing only the conventional standard of care model. The Feds, pharmaceutical industry, and media make interesting bedfellows. What we have is mainstream corporate journalism devoted to official positions.
The purpose of thorough and unbiased investigational reporting is to empower the public to deal intelligently with information. Besides knowing where and when a medical study took place, reporters need to ask critical questions and provide the people they serve with answers to the following:
- Who funded the study?
- What was the original purpose of the study?
- What substances were tested (types and dosages)?
- Did the research involve combinations of nutrients?
- Was the research on isolated components only?
- In the case of hormones, were they synthetic or compounded bio-identical hormones?
- What type of study was it (observational or double-blind placebo)?
- What was the outcome of the study?
- Whose health stands to benefit from the outcome?
- Who stands to profit monetarily from the outcome?
- Were physician/researchers from ACAM (American College for Advancement in Medicine) or other scientists without financial ties asked to comment on the study?
To connect the dots, the media has to recognize itself as a significant part of the health care problem in the U.S. Since the media shapes public opinion, special interest groups will continue to use the media to discredit dietary supplements and ultimately make them ineffective or unavailable to the public in the over-the-counter manner we enjoy now. Does the media want conventional medicine, with its heavy reliance on expensive physician-dispensed prescription drugs, to be the only game in town? Media must not offer a Trojan horse to a public that relies on it to be impartial and knowledgeable enough to report both sides of the story.