WASHINGTON -- A recent boom in convenience stores in the sales of dietary supplements, from male enhancement pills to appetite suppressants and bodybuilding supplements, gives retailers a strong reason to exercise caution when stocking such products.
C-store industry data show that 2011 sales of vitamins, minerals and supplements topped $160 million in the convenience channel, up more than 21% from the year before. The upward trend continues this year, as tens of millions of Americans purchase supplements at c-stores that offer product availability and diversity.
Although most vitamin products and dietary supplements sold in the convenience channel are safe and beneficial, not all fit that description. Unsuspecting retailers can have a small minority of unsafe products masquerading as dietary supplements on their shelves that could be harmful to consumers and could mean exposure to legal liability. Unscrupulous distributors may be offering up a few deceptively labeled products that promise consumers male sexual enhancement, weight loss and toned bodies that may actually contain undeclared and illegal active ingredients that can cause serious side effects and harmful reactions. These are not legal dietary supplements.
Consider these examples:
Sprinter LaShawn Merritt, a gold medal winner in the Beijing Olympics, purchased male enhancement pills at a convenience store in 2009. Six months later in a routine drug test, he tested positive for two anabolic steroids banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency--dehydroepiandrosterone (better known as DHEA) and pregnenolone--that were traced back to the enhancement pills. Merritt was initially barred from Olympic competition but eventually was allowed to compete in the 2012 Olympic Games.
Scott M. Melville (left), Steve MisterA California emergency-room physician purchased weight-loss pills marketed as being similar to a Food & Drug Administration (FDA)-approved weight-loss drug. But these made-in-China pills actually contained an appetite suppressant called sibutramine that is no longer sold in the United States because of safety concerns. The doctor taking the pills suffered a stroke (for which he sued the maker and won damages), while the Chinese manufacturer was arrested in Hawaii and sent to federal prison.
The largest online distributor of bodybuilding supplements recently pleaded guilty and paid $7 million in fines for selling products it thought were muscle-enhancing supplements but were actually illegal anabolic steroids.
Fighting the Problem
More than 50,000 dietary supplements are on the market today. Since 2008, the FDA has announced warnings or recalls on about 400 dietary supplements containing hidden pharmaceuticals.
The FDA raised the issue of potentially unsafe supplements late in 2010, when it sent a letter to dietary-supplement manufacturers warning that there is "an alarming variety of undeclared active ingredients in products marketed as dietary supplements."
Not surprisingly, such problems are bringing government action. The U.S. Senate has already considered new requirements that dietary supplement manufacturers register all products and their ingredients with the FDA, and a proposed Designer Anabolic Steroid Control Act would add new chemicals to the list of anabolic steroids and impose harsher penalties for adding those chemicals to dietary supplements.
Our organizations, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) and the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), support efforts to stop rogue supplement makers from "spiking" their products with anabolic steroids or prescription drugs and attempting to pass them off as dietary supplements.
At the consumer level, c-store retailers also have a responsibility to know what is on their shelves and can play a key role in keeping illegal products off the market. Retailers must be aware that there are bad actors that manufacture and distribute illegal products masquerading as dietary supplements. C-store manufacturers who are not doing their due diligence by carefully vetting the products they sell could find themselves with unsafe products on their shelves and potentially expose themselves to legal liability.
And while the vast majority of dietary supplement products are brought to market by ethical and honest manufacturers and retailers, c-store retailers can do their part to be sure the supplement products they are selling are safe and do not create legal liability.
Here are some commonsense steps to follow.
Deal only with reputable wholesalers and distributors that can offer assurance that they monitor the supply chain and the ingredient suppliers for all supplement products.
Scrutinize all product labels closely. If the label is vague or incomplete, do not take a risk and sell the product.
Beware of a product promoted on its label or in labeling as a treatment, prevention or cure for a specific disease or condition. Such claims are not approved by the FDA and are illegal.
Watch out for red-flag packaging that promises "a quick and effective cure-all" or "totally safe with no side effects"--wording which cannot be proven or is not approved.
Be highly suspicious of supplements suggesting drug-like effects, boasting scarce availability or claiming to be "barely legal."
Visit the FDA's website (www.fda.gov) or call the FDA's MedWatch Program toll-free at (800) FDA-1088 to express concerns or report a serious adverse event related to a supplement.
Unsafe supplements tarnish the reputation of legitimate products and put consumers and c-store retailers at risk. Ensure you are selling safe, high-quality products by looking at the labels, asking questions of your suppliers, and contacting your trade association or the FDA if you have questions.
Scott M. Melville is president and CEO of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA); Steve Mister is president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN).