Any late-night TV viewer has doubtlessly seen commercials for herbal remedies and dietary supplements, each claiming to do everything from inducing weight loss to increasing women's bust size to causing hair to magically grow on bald men's heads.
I've always detested these commercials with a passion, since the claims they make are highly doubtful at best, and most likely baseless lies. It's apparent that these supplement and herbal-remedy companies are preying on TV viewers' insecurities, existing mainly to separate customers from their money.
Last night, it seems the government finally had enough of one of these herbal-supplement firms. In a sweeping indictment against Ohio-based Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals, best known for the male sexual dysfunction product Enzyte, federal prosecutors accused the company of a host of crimes, including false advertising, billing customers' credit cards without authorization, and bank fraud. Ouch!
The supplement industry has been growing rapidly in the U.S. and internationally. Depending on how you classify "dietary supplements," sales have reached at least $14 billion in the U.S. Public companies like MartekBiosciences (Nasdaq: MATK ) , NutraceuticalInternational (Nasdaq: NUTR ) , American Oriental Bioengineering (AMEX: AOB ) , and NBTY (Nasdaq: NTY ) produce dietary supplements, along with numerous private companies. Note, however, that companies like Martek are more highly regulated; its supplements are used in foods given to babies, and it has successfully withstood FDA review.
The real issue here is not about one possibly corrupt supplement company -- it's about customers not knowing that the U.S. supplement industry isn't regulated the way pharmaceutical companies are. The Food and Drug Administration categorizes dietary supplements as foods, and because of this classification, only supplements that are proven unsafe are removed or blocked from the market. Unfortunately, it can sometimes take years for symptoms or signs of an unsafe supplement to pop up.
The popular weight-lifting supplement Androstenedione (AKA Andro) and Ephedra, a supplement that Mark McGwire and numerous other athletes have admitted to taking, are now banned from the market. Both have been linked to heart and other organ damage in their users. But Ephedra didn't get banned until it was suspected in association with 155 deaths.
The use of dietary supplements is really a case of balancing consumer choice against the need to protect the public from unhealthy and unsafe decisions. I'm not attempting to imply that all supplements are unsafe, nor even most of them. We simply don't know the long-term safety profiles for many supplements.
Whether or not the government intervenes to halt the sale of some possibly dangerous supplements, when it comes to your health, buyer beware. Don't assume that slick magazine or TV ads means that an herbal supplement is safe to use.
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Fool contributor Brian Lawler does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Fool has adisclosure policy.