McCain and Dorgan: Strange bedfellows

Dr. Steven Joyal Contributor
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Most people take nutritional supplements to assure themselves that they are getting their recommended daily amount of vitamins and minerals to help prevent illness and disease. They have a right to purchase those products that they believe will keep them healthy.

During American Heart Month, there is good reason to believe that right is likely to be taken away by the McCain-Dorgan bill that is being considered by the Senate. For years, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was a staunch opponent of the giant pharmaceutical companies’ that wielded their financial power and bought influence on Capitol Hill. In turn, those corporations attacked him directly for opposing their tactics of buying votes in the Senate and House. Why has this great American hero suddenly yielded to the drug makers and co-sponsored legislation that puts the FDA’s thumbscrews to the nutritional supplement industry? The answer: Baseball.

To be accurate, it was two baseball players who were tested for illegal drugs and were found to have steroids in their systems. They vowed that they were only taking “nutritional supplements.” The conclusion Sen. McCain and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), co-sponsors of the proposed amendment to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, was to add more requirements and regulation that give added enforcement power to the FDA to ban dietary supplements. The truth is the FDA already has that power. For example, last year the FDA used its draconian powers to classify an effective, natural form of vitamin B6 as an investigative new drug (IND), bowing down to pharmaceutical influence. This natural B6 vitamer has been shown to fight kidney disease in diabetes patients. Why would the FDA outlaw a low cost nutritional supplement that helps diabetes patients? Because a pharmaceutical company sees billions of dollars of profit if a natural B6 vitamer is approved as a drug for the treatment of diabetic nephropathy. Pharmaceutical companies are pushing for the adoption of the McCain-Dorgan bill so they can get their share of the dietary supplement pie. Consider the hundreds of millions of dollars that would go to the company that gets FDA approval to be the exclusive marketer of omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA found in purified fish oil, an important cardiovascular supplement that many cardiologists prescribe to their patients a steep pharmaceutical profit. Clearly, the senators have been duped by the pharmaceutical lobbyists to think that the FDA is powerless. Instead, the FDA serves as the enforcement arm of the pharmaceutical industry.

If the bill passes, “Big Pharma” will reap dramatic profits from the sale of newly declared prescription drugs out of the treasure trove of natural products mined from dietary supplements. America’s sick, elderly and those least able to defend themselves will once again be at the mercy of the unholy relationship between big business and big government bureaucracy. Misguided Sens. McCain and Dorgan seem eager to introduce bills that will squander tax-debt dollars, reap billions in profits to the pharmaceutical industry, and burden an already fragile system with additional regulation that may stifle scientific discovery and technological advancement. Our elected legislators sock it to the people who take niacin to support good cholesterol and fish oil to support vascular health. They may ban vitamin D and vitamin C that will help support bone health and a robust immune system. And they call their bipartisan bill the “Dietary Supplement Safety Act of 2020.” That merely proves that the profit-hungry pharmaceutical lobby has sunk its teeth into both sides of the Senate aisle.

Steven Joyal, M.D., is vice president of Science and Medical Affairs of the Life Extension Foundation.