Will they listen? Action Alert!
A few weeks ago, we reported on PBS Frontline’s attack piece on the dietary supplement industry. The show’s producers trotted out many of the same debunked arguments that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), and supplement critic Pieter Cohen typically cite—supplements are unsafe, unregulated, and are useless to boot. (For a more complete response to these baseless claims, read our article.)
After the Frontline piece aired, natural health advocates responded in force. PBS’s ombudsman Michael Getler—who is charged with reviewing criticisms from viewers—was flooded with emails and phone calls critiquing the show’s lack of balance. On February 5, Getler responded with a review of the response he had received. He had this to say:
I should say at the outset that I am not one of the [show’s] critics. I felt this was a valuable and cautionary presentation and public service; better to know than not to know and that—in the absence of regulation—common sense, consumer diligence and your doctor’s advice is a reasonable way to proceed. I do feel, however, that, given the enormity of routine use of vitamins and supplements by perhaps 100 million or more Americans—and the degree of mistrust by many of the pharmaceutical industry—greater context should have been provided that made clear that, despite some serious examples of bad outcomes on the program, this is not a public health calamity.
You will note that despite the many emails and phone calls he received, Getler continues to perpetuate the notion that supplements are not regulated. This is completely false, as we’ve reported time and time again. Supplements are regulated both by the FDA and the FTC and must follow stringent “current good manufacturing practices” (cGMPS) that are in place to ensure the safety and quality of dietary supplements.
The rest of the above-quoted paragraph uses weasel words to indirectly concede that we were correct—that supplements are overwhelmingly safe and Frontline completely failed to get this message across to viewers. But it does not address the issue of why the show did not disclose the financial ties of those interviewed with Big Pharma.
Later on in his article, Getler dismisses as “nonsense” the charge that PBS’s pharmaceutical sponsors had anything to do with the one-sidedness of the program. Really? It’s “nonsense” to believe the mainstream media is influenced by advertisers with large pockets? Next he’ll have us believe that large donors have no influence over the politicians they contribute to—which might come as news to those donors.
Getler also includes a response from Frontline to the backlash that doubles down on the “lack of regulation” line:
Early in the film, the acting FDA commissioner offers this warning: “The FDA does not do any review of dietary supplements before they come to market, and I think that all consumers need to understand this.”
Frontline continues by saying that “this lack of regulation” serves as the “backdrop” for the rest of the film—and as a contrast to FDA-approved drugs. The implication is that the FDA rigorously regulates drugs, so why not supplements?
There are two important points to be made. First, the FDA uses industry studies to determine if new drugs can come to market. No independent testing is done to check the industry’s results. This system presents many opportunities for manipulation. In the past, drug companies have withheld evidence that might lead a drug to be rejected, and the results have been disastrous (see, for example, the approval of Vioxx, which then killed 60,000 people). In other instances, FDA regulators ignore warnings from the agency’s own doctors in order to rush drugs through the approval process that are later found to be dangerous (see, for example, the case of Avandia). Nor does the FDA test actual pills as they come off the assembly line from who-knows-where (China?), or do follow-up studies.
Second, FDA pre-market approval of drugs has done little to ensure patient safety. Consider that pharmaceutical drugs, when properly prescribed, cause an estimated 1.9 million hospitalizations and 128,000 deaths each year. And that’s just in hospitals—deaths outside hospitals would add considerably to this total if they were recorded. In stark contrast, dietary supplements caused zero deaths in 2013, the last year reported. The same goes for prior years. What few adverse events that are caused by dietary supplements are mainly due to those over 65 having difficulty taking pills and choking.
Getler’s article, then, rationalizes a number of the glaring deficiencies in the Frontline special, while tossing off a half-hearted admission that the producers may have failed to contextualize many of the issues they raise—which is arguably one of the most important aspects of a journalist’s job! The deficiencies of the program are too egregious to be considered oversights—we see the fingerprints of Big Pharma all over this. But as donors to PBS, they have no influence over the programming, right?
Action Alert! Write to the PBS ombudsman and tell him his response is not factual—that the absence of context in the Frontline film is inexcusable, and does not even address the interview subjects’ conflicts of interest. Please send your message immediately.
Please also see Dr. Mercola’s article on this same subject today!
Other articles in this week’s Pulse of Natural Health: