CBS Prescribes Regulation for Herbal Supplements

     In its rush to paint vitamin supplements as a “Lethal Weapon” in need of regulation, CBS’s showed its “Passion” for bigger government as correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi used part two of her two-night series on  nutrition supplements to accuse Mel Gibson, and vitamin makers, of standing in the way of nutrition supplement regulation.

     “Nutritional supplements. So many Americans use them, so why aren’t they regulated the way drugs are? You may not like the answer,” anchor Katie Couric teased her January 16 audience before a commercial break.

     “In 1993, the FDA was on the verge of enforcing a truth-in-labeling regulation for dietary supplements. The industry struck back with commercials like this,” Alfonsi explained over footage of the actor Mel Gibson from a 1993 ad.

     “Consumers were urged to write to their congressmen or told they may have to kiss their vitamin C goodbye,” the correspondent added. Citing “science and medical writer Dan Hurley,” Alfonsi complained that “Congress caved and passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act instead.”

     Appearing on camera with Alfonsi in a pharmacy, Hurley insisted that the bill “protects the manufacturers” at the cost of consumers.

     Alfonsi did allow two quick sound bites from David Seckman of the Natural Products Association that totaled seven seconds and didn’t address any specific claims by Hurley. By contrast, Hurley’s two sound bites took up 18 seconds of time.

     But Seckman’s group is not the only one that takes issue with Hurley and his new book “Natural Causes.” On January 16, the Council for Responsible Nutrition, (CRN), a dietary supplement industry trade group, released a statement attacking Hurley’s book as based on hyped personal anecdotes in lieu of empirical data.

     The book “cannot be considered a credible, scientific work,” president Steve Mister was quoted in a CRN press statement. “This is an assortment of extreme anecdotes that exploit rare and tragic misfortunes in an agenda-driven attempt to sell books.” 

     Alfonsi did include two sound bites of Mister in the first segment on supplements that aired on the January 15 “Evening News,” but she left out Mister’s most damning, specific charge.

     “The book includes more than 200 footnotes, but a cursory examination shows the author repeatedly footnotes his own inquiries, other people’s opinions and people who spoke anonymously,” said the industry trade group president in a press release.

     Not only did Alfonsi give short shrift to Mister’s complaints, she parroted a horror story from Hurley’s book that critics say more regulation would do little if anything to prevent her injury.

     In her January 15 “Evening News” story, Alfonsi told viewers about Sue Gilliatt, a woman whose “nose was burned off” by “an herbal paste called bloodroot to treat a pink area on her nose she thought might be cancer.”

     But writing in a Dec. 15, 2006, article at, physician Stephen Barrett noted that marketing bloodroot as a cancer cure is already illegal in the United States.

     “Salves intended for the treatment of cancers cannot be legally marketed” and the “FDA has banned the importation of all ‘black salve’ products” including “Bloodroot Paste,” noted the retired psychiatrist and vice-president of the National Council Against Health Fraud.

     An expert in food and drug law agreed, critiquing Hurley in his book review posted on January 16.

     “The real problem is that any topical product such as the one described in this section of Mr. Hurley's book is not a dietary supplement, and cannot be legally sold as one in the United States. By law such products are drugs. If either Mr. Hurley or his editors had bothered to look at the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, they could have avoided this fundamental mistake,” wrote Marc S.Ullman, a New York attorney who represents clients “in the dietary supplement/natural products industry.”

      Even as CBS offered a skewed view of the nutritional supplement industry, the network’s in-house media critic lamented that Alfonsi was not biased enough.

     “The ‘Evening News’ gave us two sides of the argument, but it didn't tell us which one was right,” complained PublicEye blog Editor Brian Montopoli, formerly of the Columbia Journalism Review.

     “When you have someone like Hurley, who bills himself as a dispassionate observer who simply ‘looked at what evidence I could find’ and reported it, you tend to believe him over representatives of the industry that is being criticized,” he explained.