Business Week magazine offers health advice

Business Weak

If you were looking for business advice would you drop by your local deli and ask for investing tips from the guy who makes your sandwich? Sure, he might know as much about the corporate world as Donald Trump, but he’s more likely to have a valid expert opinion about what types of peppers go best on a veggie sub.

So if you wanted advice on dietary supplements, would you go looking for it in Business Week magazine? Absolutelyif you were interested in tracking investment opportunities in the supplement biz. But health advice? Mmmnot so much.

When it comes to health matters, Business Week is a really good business magazine.

One little omission

As you’ve probably figured out, I came across an article about dietary supplements in a recent issue of Business Week. And it washow shall I put it nicely? WellI can’t put it nicely. Let’s just say if this article is balanced or even well researched, the sky is lime green.

Things actually started off pretty well in Business Week’s health section. In an article about over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, I found some revealing information. According to a 2003 poll by Harris Interactive, more than 70 percent of OTC drug buyers don’t read dosage instructions. And only 20 percent of those buyers check the package to read about potential side effects. (Of course, this could have something to do with the fact that the printing on most of those packages is small enough to be undetectable to the human eye.)

Then the article starts to warm up with details about the dangers of acetaminophen, the active ingredient of Tylenol and many other OTC medications. In several e-Alerts I’ve told you how acetaminophen can trigger acute liver toxicity. In 2003, an FDA review estimated that there are more than 14,000 unintentional overdoses of acetaminophen every year, with about 100 of those cases resulting in death. (As a side note, a doctor I had dinner with last night said he sees more acetaminophen overdoses in the emergency room than any other drug – including cocaine and heroin.) But the OTC article doesn’t mention a word about acetaminophen-related deaths.

Why soft pedal that information? Well, maybe it’s all about respect. The article ends with a reminder that many OTC products started out as prescription drugs. The tag line: “So show some respect.” But that’s where respect runs out of gas, because the very next article, which begins on the same page, is titled “Supplements: Buyer Beware.”

Suddenly you can smell a lack of respect coming a mile away.

It’s going to get ugly

“Are they safe? Do they work?” Those two hypothetical questions about dietary supplements are posed by Stuart Bondurant, M.D., the executive dean of Georgetown University Medical Center. His answer: “We don’t really know what the risks or health effects, positive or negative, are.”

Now you might think that because Dr. Bondurant holds a prominent position in the medical mainstream he’s just not motivated to read the hundreds of studies about dietary supplements that are published every year. But Dr. Bondurant is also the committee chairman of a National Academy of Sciences report on alternative medicine. So he of all people should be aware that we actually know quite a bit about the risks and health effects of supplements.

And then, of course, ephedra – the sad little whipping boy of herbals – is dragged out for a fresh clubbing. The FDA, we’re told, had to work YEARS to gather the necessary evidence to ban ephedra products, which were linked to “dozens of deaths.”

Ooooookay. Here we go. Ephedra products caused dozens of deaths, but no mention at all of the ongoing hundreds of acetaminophen-related deaths? There’s nothing amusing about untimely deaths, but what is amusing is the chart titled “Over-the-Counter Complications” that accompanies the OTC article. Seven OTC drugs are highlighted for potential problems, including pseudoephedrine, “commonly found in Sudafed and other decongestants.”

Know what pseudoephedrine is? Take a close look at the word. It’s a synthetic form of ephedrine, which is a dangerously hyped up version of ephedra. Whenever someone wants to cast doubts about dietary supplements they point to the demon ephedra, which our FDA “protectors” have banned. But in fact, the truly dangerous form of ephedra is still widely available, in any quantity you’d like, as pseudoephedrine.

Another detail the OTC article doesn’t recognize is that many OTC products and prescription drugs started out as safe herbal treatments, such as ephedra.

So, you know, show some respect.

Business quips

I could go on and on about the inaccuracies and half-truths I found throughout this relatively brief article. But I can’t resist singling out this priceless quote:

“Overall, with the exception of a few powerful substances like ephedra, quips a former FDA official, ‘the biggest harm from supplements is to Americans’ wallets.'”

Hilarious! Those former FDA officials are always firing off knee-slapping quips! But the really funny thing about this one is that pharmaceuticals are so outrageously expensive that healthcare costs in the U.S. are at an all time high. Meanwhile, the “wallets” of international drug giants are stuffed to overflowing with more and more billions in profits every year.

Now THERE’S a good business angle that Business Week could feature: For safety and economy Americans are turning to alternative healthcare in droves.

“Counter Intelligence” Carol Marie Cropper, Business Week, Pg. 116, 5/23/05,
Supplements: Buyer Beware” John Carey, Business Week, Pg. 118, 5/23/05,