why ‘natural supplements’ need regulation

Every so often the issue of regulating supplements and complementary & alternative medicines comes up. And when it does, you tend to get responses that include: these ‘treatments’ are natural & so completely OK; people have the right to use them to self-medicate; & so on.

I don’t have an issue with the ‘right to self-medicate’ part – as long as the products people are using are fit for purpose. Now this should really include some form of regulation, so that the folks using the products can be sure that said products contain the claimed ‘natural’ active ingredients, and that those ingredients are present in a standardised form – there shouldn’t be dose variation between different batches of product, etc.

If you don’t think that’s a good enough reason for regulation, how about this headline from yesterday’s Royal Society science news feed:

Erectile dysfunction products recalled: ESR confirms Stallion, Volcanic, Tomcat Ali & SZM Formula for Men contain significant quantities of an active ingredient available only by prescription.

Strange, considering that Tomcat Ali claims to be a natural product made from a rare herb found ony in SE Asia, providing what men need for erectile functioning without all those nasty side effects from bad synthetic pharmaceuticals. Similarly SZM Formula for Men supposedly contains the same herb, & claims to be an ‘all natural herbal dietary supplement’. I note with interest that claims to “support” male libido & functioning – ‘support’ is a weasel word that means precisely nothing in a medical/scientific context, which is why it’s used widely in this sort of advertising. Anything more specific would probably get the authors in trouble with regulatory authorities. (No I am not going to link to the websites for these products – why should I send traffic their way??? But they’re easy to find via google if you absolutely must.)

It turns out that Medsafe has ordered the immediate recall of all batches of the four products after tests showed that they contain the undeclared prescription medicine tadalafil. Medsafe’s investigations found the products were being sold by retail in health food stores and pharmacies as well as ‘adult’ shops and over the Internet.

That the products are adulterated in this way doesn’t really surprise me. If the rare, natural herb really did have the effects ascribed to it, its active ingredient would also be on the pharmaceutical list by now. How better to ensure that your customers get the results they’re expecting (& so coming back to buy some more) than to add the active ingredient in Cialis to your ‘natural’ product?

But, if you want to self-medicate with natural products, then surely regulation is a Good Thing, as it would help to ensure that you really are getting unmodified, unadulterated, all-natural products without unknown & potentially unsafe additives. Which is an important point here: tadalafil, the pharmaceutical drug added to these so-called erectile dysfunction products, turns out to interfere with heart medications – something that could be harmful & potentially fatal. You may say that other products aren’t tainted in this way, but without the checks & balances inherent in regulation – how could you possibly know?

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