Our View: Promises of weight loss often can be misleading

12/28/2013 3:58 PM

12/28/2013 4:00 PM

As you contemplate new year’s resolutions to get into shape, avoid pills and potions that promise shortcuts to weight loss.

As The New York Times reported in a recent article, concoctions known as dietary supplements are sending otherwise healthy people to hospitals.

Roughly 4,000 companies market 85,000 dietary supplements in a $20 billion industry. Some probably do some good, depending on how you define it. Many do nothing. More than a few have led to serious health problems.

One of the latest problems involves OxyELITE Pro, a product marketed by a Texas company, USPLabs. In September, state health officials in Hawaii learned that seven otherwise healthy patients suffered sudden liver damage after taking the product, which supposedly helps with weight loss and muscle building.

By the end of October, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration counted 56 cases of acute liver failure or hepatitis linked to OxyELITE Pro, 43 in Hawaii. Authorities said some patients required liver transplants, and one died. By November, Hawaii authorities persuaded island retailers to turn over their stock of the product, and the FDA pushed for a national recall.

Now come the product liability lawsuits. USPLabs, which didn’t respond to an email request for comment, seeks to give itself a immunity from any liability, claiming in capital letters on its website:

“In no event or circumstance will USPLabs be liable for any direct, indirect, incidental or consequential damages as a result of or due to the use of the website or product(s).”

In other words, you’re on your own. A company’s unwillingness to stand by its products ought to give consumers pause.

Congress should give the FDA more authority to test dietary supplements before they go to market, but there’s little chance that will happen. The industry makes shrewd use of lobbying and campaign contributions, and is protected by a 1994 law that equates dietary supplements with food.

To remove a supplement from the market, the FDA must prove it is unsafe – which isn’t easy. The feds removed products containing the stimulant ephedra in 2004, but only after it was linked to more than 30 deaths. In recent years, the FDA has become more aggressive. Last Tuesday, the FDA issued its latest warning, urging consumers to stop taking a product called, ironically enough, Mass Destruction, after a previously healthy 28-year-old North Carolina man needed a liver transplant.

Back to those resolutions. Walk. Bike. Swim. Eat well. Read more, especially the labels of anything you’re contemplating putting into your body. Oh, and beware of the lightly regulated dietary supplement industry’s pills and potions.

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