Bayer, Pfizer Accused of Making False Claims About Their Top-Selling Multivitamins

Pfizer's Centrum

Story at-a-glance -

  • The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) alleged that claims made on the labels of Pfizer’s Centrum multivitamin products were deceptive
  • Following a threatened lawsuit, Pfizer agreed to drop certain claims related to “breast health” and “colon health” from the labels of its Centrum multivitamins
  • CSPI has also notified Bayer, maker of One A Day multivitamins, that they will file a lawsuit against them for violating state consumer protection laws if certain deceptive claims are not removed from One A Day marketing materials
  • The supplement industry represents the drug industry's greatest competition, and drug makers are increasingly buying up supplement makers to increase their profits; if you choose to take supplements, knowing who’s behind the brands you trust, and whether or not their products can truly benefit your health, is essential

By Dr. Mercola

A recent study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, BASF Corporation, Pfizer and DSM Nutritional Products found that daily supplementation with a multivitamin significantly reduced the risk of cancer among men.

This particular study used Pfizer’s Centrum brand of multivitamins, which brings in around $1 billion a year in sales (a hefty share of the $40 billion US supplement market).

Undoubtedly, Pfizer will seek to use these study results to claim that taking Centrum multivitamins may help you prevent cancer… a lofty marketing move that has already landed them (and other drug companies) in hot water…

Although it is good to see the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) keeping these companies honest, one of the biggest crimes is actually perfectly legal. These companies are using synthetic vitamins rather than natural ones in virtually all of their products, despite the compelling evidence of the vast superiority of natural versions.

Pfizer Removes False Claims from Multivitamins After a Threatened Lawsuit

Last year CSPI alleged that claims made on the labels of Centrum multivitamin products were deceptive and implied that the supposed health benefits had been scientifically established, when most were from studies not directly applicable to the product. Among the claims at issue were that Pfizer’s multivitamins support:

  • Energy and immunity
  • Heart health
  • Eye health
  • Breast and colon health
  • Bone health

In a letter to Pfizer Chief Executive Ian Read, CSPI threatened legal action and listed multiple examples of unsubstantiated claims and deception. For instance, regarding the multivitamin’s role in heart health, the letter stated:1

“Pfizer markets Centrum Ultra Men’s, Centrum Cardio, and Centrum Silver with the claim that they support “heart health.”

For example, a recent print advertisement says, “Centrum Cardio is the only complete multivitamin with CoroWise™ phytosterols, an ingredient derived from soybeans that may reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol. Centrum Cardio is the multivitamin that's complete and all heart.”(Emphases added.)

However, existing research on the effectiveness of phytosterols has evaluated them in foods, … which help disperse the phytosterols in the GI tract to do their work. There is little or no evidence that the free phytosterols in hard, dry pills have the same effect. In fact, Pfizer has failed to produce any convincing evidence as to their effects in response to previous requests from CSPI.

Therefore, this claim is un-lawful because it lacks prior substantiation and is deceptive.”

In response, Pfizer agreed to drop certain claims related to “breast health” and “colon health” from the labels of its Centrum multivitamins, as well as from their Web site. CSPI subsequently agreed to withdraw their notice of intention to file a lawsuit.

Bayer Also Threatened With Legal Action Over False Multivitamin Claims

Bayer, which manufactures One A Day multivitamins, states on their Web site that taking One a Day is a recommended tip for avoiding breast cancer. CSPI has taken issue with this, and other health claims related to heart disease and more, and has notified Bayer that they will file a lawsuit for violating state consumer protection laws if the deceptive claims are not removed from One A Day marketing materials.

This is the second time since 2009 that CSPI has threatened Bayer with legal action. In 2009, the organization filed a lawsuit against Bayer for claiming that its One A Day Men’s multivitamin with selenium might reduce the risk of prostate cancer, when no research existed to back it up. Bayer also settled a lawsuit in 2010, in which a group of state attorney generals alleged the company was “deceptively leveraging fear of prostate cancer in order to market One A Day to men.”2

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Who’s Behind Some of the Largest Multivitamin Brands in the World?

There’s certainly nothing wrong with taking a multivitamin supplement. But when doing so it’s essential to know who’s behind the product you’re trusting with your health. For instance, Pfizer, which makes Centrum multivitamins, is no stranger to lawsuits and has been convicted of fraud and other illegal activities on multiple occasions.

In fact, in 2009, Pfizer paid a $2.3-billion settlement for marketing fraud related to Bextra, Lyrica and other drugs. Charges included marketing drugs to doctors for uses for which they had not been approved and giving kickbacks to doctors and other health care professionals for prescribing their drugs. This was Pfizer's fourth settlement numbering in the multimillions in less than a decade.

Meanwhile, some 3,000 lawsuits have been filed against Bayer in recent years over their genetically modified crops contaminating American rice farms. They have also been fending off lawsuits from angry beekeepers for years now, who allege that Bayer’s neonicotinoid pesticides are killing bees.

Why Are Drug Companies Interested in the Supplement Market?

The drug industry would rather you head out to your physician's office and receive a prescription for a drug to protect your heart and treat diseases. So why are they increasingly buying up the supplement industry? The supplement industry actually represents the drug industry's greatest competition, and as the saying goes, you should keep your friends close and your enemies even closer… By buying up supplement companies, the drug industry stands to benefit in several key ways:

  1. Supplements as a category are yielding greater sales growth than the overall US economy and represent the greatest threat to drug company profits (the supplement industry is expected to grow at a rate of 9 percent a year through 2015, when it is expected to reach more than $90 billion3 -- as compared to the US economy's dwindling growth rate of 2 percent per year).
  2. Drug patents are set to expire soon, in great volume, forcing pharmaceutical companies to find replacements for their top moneymaking drugs.
  3. Pharmaceutical companies can snuff out their competition by paying off politicians to write legislation that makes it too difficult for small competitors (i.e., supplement companies) to survive, and then buying up the large competitors that remain).

These large drug companies actually benefit from the increased regulatory hurdles being imposed upon the supplement industry because it helps them squelch smaller competitors (who, by the way, often offer you better quality goods and services).

Recent acquisitions include:

  • Pfizer, which purchased Alacer (the maker of "Emergen-C" vitamin drink mixes) in February 2012 for $360 million
  • Bayer acquired Schiff Nutrition International, a leading nutritional supplement company, for $1.2 billion in a 2012 deal
  • Procter & Gamble (which is partnered with Teva Pharmaceutical Industries) bought supplement maker New Chapter in March 2012 for $250 million

Can Multivitamins Improve Your Health?

As a consumer interested in taking control of your own health, you have a number of "tools" at your disposal, including access to hundreds of therapeutic vitamins and other nutritional supplements that are available over the counter. Is this a worthwhile avenue to improve your health?

I do believe that dietary supplements -- including vitamins and minerals -- can help compensate for some of the damage your body incurs through living in a contemporary culture. However, it's not wise to use supplements to justify a poor diet or otherwise unhealthful lifestyle. In my experience, no amount of supplements will ever be able to substitute for healthy food choices. And if you’re depending on a pill of any form to lower your risk of cancer, as the above-mentioned study claims for multivitamins, you’re short-changing yourself, as there are far more comprehensive cancer-prevention strategies available at your fingertips…

Assuming you are using them to complement an otherwise healthy lifestyle, a high-quality multivitamin can be useful. Unfortunately, many spend hundreds of dollars a year or more on synthetic vitamins purchased from discount stores, which typically use cheap synthetic isolates.

Isolated synthetic vitamins are far less than optimal. Your body only absorbs a small percentage of an isolate form of vitamins and minerals, and it utilizes even less. Plus, synthetic vitamins often give you massive quantities of some nutrients (often the most inexpensive ones) and insufficient quantities of others.

Nature intended for you to consume food in whole form because all the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and enzymes are together in one package, working synergistically to give your body the nutrition it requires for optimal health. This is why when you choose supplements, you need to look for whole-food supplements -- and steer clear of synthetic vitamins.  

How Do You Determine Whether or Not a Supplement Is a Good Choice?

For starters, make sure it has the following characteristics:

  • It is as close as possible to its natural (whole food) form.
  • Use independent third-party labs that check the raw materials for contaminants and correct dosage.
  • Follows industry standards for quality assurance including ISO 9001, ISO 17025 and Good Manufacturing Processes (GMP) certifications.
  • The utmost care has been taken in all phases of its production, from growing its ingredients, to manufacturing, testing for potency and quality control.
  • It works! I always try to select from companies that have a long track record of providing high-quality products that produce good clinical results.

Remember, if you are interested in optimizing your health, your BEST solution is to choose the highest quality foods possible, and eat a wide variety of whole organic foods. You can use my free nutrition plan and work your way up to the advanced stage. Once you have addressed your diet and are looking for further improvement, odds are you would likely benefit from some supplements, like an animal-based omega-3 supplement and a probiotic, for example. There are many others you could then consider depending on your specific circumstances, including a high-quality multivitamin, additional antioxidant support and others.