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5/4/2001

Americans Like Dietary Supplements But Support Regulation

Nancy Tarleton Landis

Four out of five Americans favor increased government regulation of dietary supplements, according to a recent article in Archives of Internal Medicine.1

The authors compiled data from six public opinion surveys conducted between 1996 and 1999. Some 1000 to 1200 people were included in each survey. Two of the surveys separated the views of users and nonusers of supplements.

A majority of respondents supported greater regulation to ensure that supplements are pure and not harmful, that doses are consistent, and that advertising claims are true. Some 80% said that new dietary supplements should be sold only after testing by FDA and that supplements should be removed from the market if FDA shows they are unsafe. More than than half of all respondents (53%) knew that supplements are not regulated by the government, but 35% believed the government regulates these products and 12% said they did not know.

Fewer than one in five respondents were identified as regular dietary supplement users, and less than one third of the respondents used supplements sometimes. Yet a majority (59%) of all respondents said access to these products is somewhat or very important. Overall, 52% said supplements are good for health and well-being. When asked about the benefit of supplements for specific conditions, regular users were significantly more likely than nonusers to say supplements were helpful, but many nonusers also thought these products were helpful.

Those who used supplements regularly were more confident in the safety of these products. Of regular users, 53% said people are rarely or never harmed by supplements; 38% of nonusers gave this response. Users and nonusers also differed on whether supplements are adequately tested; 49% of regular users and 33% of nonusers said testing is adequate.

Users of supplements indicated that scientific evidence would not dissuade them. One third or fewer reported that they would stop using a supplement if a government agency said it was ineffective.

Of those who used supplements regularly, 70% said their physicians were aware of this. The extent of information shared with physicians was not determined, however. Almost half of the regular users thought physicians are prejudiced against supplements, and 44% said their own physicians did not know much about supplements.

Because a substantial proportion of the public is skeptical about the motivations and knowledge of physicians and scientists concerning supplements, wrote the authors, efforts to increase FDA oversight will gain support only if they are narrowly focused on the testing of new products or products for which there is evidence of potential harm or false claims.

  1. Blendon RJ, DesRoches CM, Benson JM et al. Americans' views on the use and regulation of dietary supplements. Arch Intern Med. 2001; 161:805-10.