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What (if anything) does “natural” mean?

"When I use a word," said Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more, nor less." Lewis Carroll, "Through the Looking Glass"

“When I use a word,” said Humpty Dumpty in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more, nor less.”
Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass”

What does the term “natural” mean on a label? Does it mean anything? Should it mean anything? Good questions. And complicated ones, judging from the list of questions the FDA needs your help in answering.

The FDA has resisted defining “natural” in food product labeling, including whether foods that are genetically engineered, or contain genetically engineered ingredients, can use the term. Back in 1991, the agency set out to issue regulations but abandoned the effort and has since held to an informal policy that “natural” means

nothing artificial or synthetic (including color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.

The only official legal requirement for using the description “natural” on a food label is that it not be misleading or false, which is forbidden by the Food, Drug & Cosmetics Act of 1938. In that appetite-suppressing way of statutory language, “food” is defined by the Act as

articles used for food or drink for man or other animals, chewing gum, and articles for used for components of any such article.

For regulatory purposes, dietary supplements are also considered foods in most cases. (more…)

Posted in: Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Legal, Nutrition, Politics and Regulation

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Patient Beware: Off-label drug promotion by pharmaceutical companies

In truth, physicians are rarely this happy to see a drug rep.

In truth, physicians are rarely this happy to see a drug rep.

Pharmaceutical companies and their sales reps can distribute information, such as medical journal articles, about unapproved (“off-label“) uses of their drugs as long as they adhere to FDA guidelines. However, the FDA takes the position that this information must be distributed separately from information that is “promotional in nature,” i.e., for marketing purposes, a position that is now open to question.

Off-label promotion of a drug for a use that has not been approved by the FDA is, in the FDA’s view, a violation of the federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDC Act). It is subject to criminal prosecution, because promoting a drug for new, unapproved uses is evidence of an intent that the drug be used before it has gone through the extensive process of clinical trials and a review of the evidence of safety and efficacy by a panel of experts, as required by law before a drug can be marketed. Thus, off-label promotion is seen as an end-run around the approval process that perverts the purpose of the FDC Act, which is to protect the public from ineffective and unsafe drugs.

Studies show that personal sales visits to physicians by pharmaceutical reps (called “detailing”) drives prescriptions in favor of the drugs being promoted. This is true even though physicians’ view of detailing ranges from neutral to highly negative, a “necessary evil,” and physicians are aware of potential conflicts of interest these visits precipitate.

While there are restrictions on off-label promotion, off-label prescribing by a physician is not illegal. Physician practice is regulated by the states and not within the jurisdiction of the FDA. In fact, off-label prescribing is considered both ethical and within the standard of care in appropriate circumstances. (I am currently taking a drug for an off-label use, and was informed of this, plus the risks and benefits, by my physician prior to his prescribing it.) It is also common, according to an article by law professors Ryan Abbot and Ian Ayers in the Duke Law Journal, which is well worth reading:

for the 3 leading drugs in each of the 15 leading drug classes, off-label use accounts for approximately 21% of prescriptions. Moreover, off-label uses may be the norm in some areas of practice, such as oncology, pain management, and palliative care, and in some patient populations, such as children, the elderly, and the severely ill. For example, about 80 percent of all drug prescriptions for children are off-label, and between 80 and 90 percent of all drug prescriptions for rare diseases are off-label. [Footnotes omitted.]

(more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Ethics, Legal, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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The consumer lab rat: More questions about supplement safety

Laboratory Rats
Do you take a vitamin or dietary supplement? Over half of all American adults do, making this a $30 billion dollar business. Many of us even take supplements in the absence of any clear medical or health need. I’m often told it’s a form of nutritional “insurance” or it’s being taken for some presumed beneficial effect – like Steven Novella outlined in yesterday’s post on antioxidants. We love the idea of a risk-free magic bullet that improves our health and wellness. Especially one that avoids what are presumed to be toxic, unnatural drugs. Supplements are marketed as safe, natural and effective, and there is no question that messaging has been effective.

I used to take supplements. For me it was multivitamins. But as I’ve taken a closer look at the evidence for supplementation, my personal behaviors changed. The primary reason is a lack of evidence. There is no evidence to suggest that vitamins offer any health benefits in the absence of deficiency. The balance of evidence suggests that routine multivitamins are unnecessary for most people. Vitamins should come from your food, not from supplements. More generally, looking at the broader category of supplements that range from probiotics to herbal remedies, there is little evidence to support most of them. With a few exceptions, the research done on dietary supplements is unconvincing and largely negative. If you don’t supplement, you don’t seem to be missing out on any tremendous health benefits.

Going beyond the lack of evidence, there’s an even more compelling need for consumers to be wary of them. The safety of supplements is increasingly being called into question. Evidence has emerged demonstrating that quality standards for supplements sold in many countries are erratic and unpredictable. The root cause seems to be regulatory systems that prioritize manufacturer interests ahead of consumer protection. With supplements, products are effectively being tested for safety after they are marketed, and the consumer is the unwitting research subject. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation

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Continued Battle over Homeopathy

Homeopathy - not medicine
The battle to rid modern scientific societies from the blatant and harmful pseudoscience of homeopathy continues. This past year has been overall a good one – in the US both the FDA and FTC decided to review their regulation of homeopathy. They have gathered their testimony and are now apparently reviewing everything. Their decisions on this topic are eagerly anticipated and could decide the fate of homeopathy for the next one or more generations.

Some success

In the UK the situation is also very positive. Their national health service is considering blacklisting homeopathy so that general practitioners cannot prescribe homeopathic products.

Success in the UK is largely due to The Good Thinking Society, founded by Simon Singh. They have been tirelessly campaigning against NHS coverage of homeopathy and are making steady progress. They are demonstrating that skeptical activism can be effective.

Likewise, SBM and the Society for SBM are having an impact in the US, mainly through persistent persuasive writing and being available as a resource to politicians, the press, and regulators. Members have personally consulted with the FDA, FTC, and staff of senators interested in the issue.

(more…)

Posted in: Homeopathy

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Worshiping at the altar of the Cult of the Brave Maverick Doctor

Death of Cancer

One of my favorite television shows right now is The Knick, as I described before in a post about medical history. To give you an idea of how much I’m into The Knick, I’ll tell you that I signed up for Cinemax for three months just for that one show. (After its second season finale airs next Friday, I’ll drop Cinemax until next fall.) The reason why I’m bringing up The Knick (besides I love the show and need to bring it up at least once a year) is because an article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker entitled “Tough Medicine“, which is a commentary based on a new book on cancer by a veritable god of cancer research, Vincent T. DeVita, Jr., immediately resonated with a storyline in this season of The Knick. I haven’t yet read The Death of Cancer: After Fifty Years on the Front Lines of Medicine, a Pioneering Oncologist Reveals Why the War on Cancer Is Winnable–and How We Can Get There by Vincent T. DeVita and Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn, but I want to. I can tell, though, that there will be parts of the book I find annoying just from Gladwell’s take on it, which approvingly describes DeVita as railing against the cautiousness and incremental nature of today’s cancer research. To give you an idea of where Gladwell’s coming from, I note that his article shows up in the title bar of my web browser not as “Tough Medicine” but rather “How To Cure Cancer”, even as the title on the web page itself remains “Tough Medicine”. On the other hand, the article does conclude with Gladwell demonstrating a better understanding of the disadvantages of what DeVita is proposing than it seems that he will in the beginning. In fact, it is Gladwell who is more reasonable than his subject, although he does appear share DeVita’s apparent assumption that potentially all cancer patients are savable if only we try hard enough. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, History, Medical Ethics

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US Department of Justice Goes After Supplements

The Robert F. Kennedy building in Washington, DC, headquarters of the United States Department of Justice

The Robert F. Kennedy building in Washington, DC, headquarters of the United States Department of Justice

It is shaping up to be a good year for those of us advocating more effective regulation of supplements and unproven therapies in the US. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reviewing its regulation of homeopathy, and recently also announced it is taking public comment on its regulation of the term “natural.” The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is also reviewing the claims made by the homeopathy industry, and even gave a nudge to the FDA to fix its regulation.

Now the US Department of Justice (DOJ) is getting in on the fun:

USPlabs, which sold the best-selling workout supplement Jack3d, and six of its executives face criminal charges for the unlawful sale of nutritional supplements, the U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday in announcing a larger probe by federal agencies aimed at stemming the sale of unproven products.

This action by the DOJ raises the stakes to a new level – criminal charges. While the FDA and FTC do the best they can, they often lack teeth when it comes to supplements. The FDA might issue a polite request and then escalate to a stern warning when companies step out of line. The FTC can issue fines which amount to little more than a slap on the wrist – the cost of doing business. Both agencies are playing whack-a-mole and losing.

(more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Legal

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The Amarin case: off-label promotion and a double standard for prescription drugs vs. dietary supplements

Screenshot 2015-10-14 23.04.19

A recent court decision enjoined the FDA from threatening prosecution against a drug manufacturer for off-label promotion of a prescription drug. Based on this and an earlier decision by an appellate court, it appears that the FDA can no longer prosecute a pharmaceutical manufacturer for a truthful and non-misleading off-label promotion to health care professionals, at least within the jurisdiction of the United States Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit, which covers Connecticut, New York and Vermont.

For this reason, the case, Amarin Pharma, Inc. v. FDA (Amarin), received a good deal of attention in the world of drug regulation. (Here is an excellent analysis by two attorneys who practice in the area of drug regulation.) First, we’ll take a look at the issue of off-label promotion. Then we’ll look at an issue that really didn’t engender much comment, but that I find fascinating: how the same substance can be subject to very different regulatory treatment, depending on whether it is sold as a dietary supplement or prescription drug.

Background: Initial approval of Vascepa and subsequent research

In 2012, the pharmaceutical manufacturer Amarin received FDA approval for a new drug, Vascepa, as an adjunct to diet to reduce triglyceride levels in adult patients with severe hypertriglyceridemia (triglycerides ≥ 500mg/dL). Approval was based on a single phase 3 clinical trial.

Following that approval, Amarin designed a second single phase 3 clinical trial to look at the effect of Vascepa on triglyceride levels among statin-treated patients with persistently high triglycerides (≥ 200 and ≤ 500 mg/dL). Pursuant to an agreement with the FDA that, if it met certain conditions, Vascepa would obtain approval for this use, Amarin proceeded with an FDA-approved protocol. As a further condition of the agreement, it also began enrolling patients in a third trial to see if Vascepa actually reduced major cardiac events. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Herbs & Supplements, Legal, Nutrition, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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“Female Viagra?” Misleading Headlines and Regulatory Dilemmas

addyiThe FDA recently approved flibanserin (brand name Addyi) for the treatment of hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) in pre-menopausal women. The story of flibanserin illustrates several of the issues we have confronted on this blog:

  • It was hyped in the media.
  • Misleading headlines called it the female Viagra.
  • It was initially rejected by the FDA and was approved only after extensive lobbying efforts.
  • The drug is only minimally effective and has a lot of drawbacks.
  • Two of the three supporting scientific studies claimed effectiveness based a surrogate measure but failed to show any measurable improvement in sexual desire.
  • A campaign to support “women’s sexual health equity” pushed for approval, framing it as a step towards correcting what they perceived as gender bias (they claimed the FDA was biased because it had provided Viagra to help men have sex but hadn’t done anything to help women have sex).
  • And the validity of the diagnosis of HSDD itself has been questioned.

(more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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The Federal Trade Commission takes on homeopathy—maybe

FTC vs. homeopathy: Cage match?

FTC vs. homeopathy: Cage match?

Well, I’m back.

OK, returning from London isn’t nearly as epic as Sam Gamgee’s final words in The Lord of the Rings returning to his wife and daughter after having accompanied Frodo, Gandalf, Bilbo, and key elves of Middle-Earth to the Grey Havens, there to say goodbye to them as they boarded a ship to the undying lands. I just love the quote. It says something to me returning home after a long journey, even if it was just a vacation to J.R.R. Tolkien’s native land. It also suggests a bit of the exhaustion after a long day of traveling, complete with a long-delayed flight, a late arrival, and a state of utter exhaustion that accompanied it, plus an unfortunate lower gastrointestinal issue.

All of this is a way of saying that this post might actually be relatively brief for a post by me…no epics this week. [Addendum: Nope. Even lower GI annoyances and exhaustion couldn’t keep me from going over 2,000 words. At least I didn’t hit 3,000.] In its nearly eight year history, I’ve never missed more than one week at SBM, and I don’t intend to start now. Specifically, with the FTC workshop on homeopathy rapidly approaching, one week from today, I couldn’t resist adding my 2 pence to the mix, now that the agenda and list of participants have been announced.
(more…)

Posted in: Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation

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Battle of the feds: FTC tells FDA to do its job regulating homeopathy

Two institutions duke it out: FTC vs FDA.

Two institutions duke it out: FTC versus FDA.

Last month, the Society for Science-Based Medicine submitted a comment to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in response to its request for public comments on the agency’s current regulation (actually, lack of regulation) of homeopathic drugs. As the SFSBM pointed out, the FDA has, without legal authority, exempted homeopathic drugs from the safety and efficacy requirements applicable to other drugs under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). Lax regulation has resulted in consumer confusion: consumers do not understand homeopathy, how the FDA regulates homeopathic drugs, and the lack of scientific evidence underlying claims made by homeopathic drug companies.

As it turns out, we were in excellent company. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the agency charged with preventing fraudulent and deceptive business practices, submitted its own comment to the FDA, making these same points. (The FTC is holding its own workshop on advertising homeopathic drugs later this month. We’ll get to that shortly.)

The FTC’s advertising substantiation policy requires that health-related efficacy claims be supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence. The FDA, despite federal law, does not require evidence of efficacy for homeopathic drugs prior to their being marketed. This creates a potential conflict between the two regulatory schemes, resulting in homeopathic over-the-counter (OTC) “drugs” on the market that both comply with FDA’s policy and violate FTC’s policy. This, says the FTC, can be harmful to consumers and create confusion for advertisers. The FTC “recommends that the FDA reconsider its regulatory framework for homeopathic medicines” and tells the FDA what it can do to remedy the situation. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Legal, Politics and Regulation

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