Are limits on free speech about supplements good for your health?
Here’s a question: Is someone selling a dietary supplement allowed to describe the positive results of a legitimate clinical study about their product? If you said, “Yes,” you would be wrong. Does this serve the public health?
As Americans, we believe in freedom of speech, right? It occupies the top spot in the Bill of Rights, after all. But does that make all speech OK? No, of course not. For instance, we know we can’t falsely yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theater because a stampede may result and people could be injured.
Similarly, somebody selling a product cannot simply make stuff up to convince you to buy that product. “Snake oil” cannot be sold as the elixir of life. Fabricated health claims may not cause a buyer physical harm directly, but they can have other ill effects. So we safeguard those who may be swindled from the swindler.
Limits on free speech exist to protect the rights of others
But does this go too far? Sellers of dietary supplements can neither summarize clinical research studies using standard medical terminology, nor even hand out copies of research that support their product or ingredient. Whose rights are being protected in this case?
Here’s but one example: Cherry growers have been told by the FDA that they face jail if their Websites even contain links to scientific studies from Harvard and elsewhere outlining the documented health benefits of cherries for gout or arthritis pain. Similar warnings have been sent to walnut producers and companies that tout the benefits of green tea, even though these also are well documented.
Violation of this ban can result in FDA declaring common dietary supplements and foods to be unapproved drugs, the sale of which is subject to large fines and jail … seriously.
Have you heard of the natural sweetener stevia? A few years back, before Coca Cola and Cargill discovered that people increasingly wanted a calorie-free natural sweetener instead of high fructose corn syrup, and put their clout behid getting the FDA to approve it, businesses got raided by SWAT teams just for handing out information implying stevia’s health benefits.
What are the consequences of such a policy?
Believe it or not, there is a rationale for this policy, which I’ll cover in my next post, but for now let’s focus on the policy’s unintended negative consequences. What negative effect may limiting the speech of supplement makers have on the vitamin- and dietary-supplement-buying public? Here are just a few:
1) Decreased access to legitimate science – Most articles describing human studies are published in scientific journals that require a subscription to read. Sure, you can purchase the right to read them for something like $40 an article. But really, who does? Yet, would you perhaps read a reprint given to you for free?
2) Reduced incentive to fund real science – Without the ability to freely discuss the results of a clinical study, supplement makers are left with a difficult decision: Should they devote any funding to something that cannot be talked about? But each new research study presents the possibility of uncovering additional insight about our diet and health! Shouldn’t we have the right to know about it?
3) Increased reliance on experts and/or charlatans – Without free access to information how can we make informed decisions? Instead, we must rely on others that have, or at least pretend to have that access. This sends the message that most of us are incapable of making rational decision about our own health. In turn, our health decisions might be unduly influenced by rumors, myths and others’ priorities.
Free Speech About Science Act
If you think, as many people do, that this policy is absurd, you can lend your voice to the debate. Currently there is a bill before Congress that could change all this. It’s called the Free Speech About Science (FSAS) Act of 2011. It would allow anyone to provide and describe legitimate scientific research about components of food and dietary supplements.
If you want more access to the science behind your dietary supplements, contact your elected officials here to support the passage of this bill.
Next: The other side of the argument – why speech about science currently is limited.