In this Mercola article series, we look at the "Ghost in the Machine" –– the murderous forces in our health care system that harm patients instead of help them. This series exposes the deceptions that occur in almost all facets of health care today for no reason other than money. It also exposes the identities of the ghost's "puppet masters" who perpetrate health misinformation and unethical drug marketing for profit, whether it's Big Pharma or its helpers in academia, government and nongovernment agencies.
If you suspect that supplements are more popular than ever, you are right. More than half of American adults have used one or more supplements and more than half of women and 43 percent of men used a supplement of some kind within the last 30 days.1,2
While that means not taking vitamins or supplements is now a minority position, it also means Big Pharma is trying to get "in on" the supplement business. The U.S. retail sales of vitamins and supplements is expected to exceed $36 billion in 2017.3 While that's less than a tenth of what Pharma rakes in annually, it has nevertheless caught the drug industry's attention.
Also, the highest users of supplements and alternative therapies are the most desirable demographic to marketers — those reporting "excellent" or "very good" health, usually with a higher discretionary income.4 No wonder Pharma and Pharma-supported voices have launched an all-out smear campaign against supplements and alternative therapies. Both categories lack the huge price tags of drugs and encourage patient education and self-care.
Supplements and natural products also often treat or prevent the very conditions that enrich drug companies, which further explains Big Pharma's wrath. For example, probiotic-rich fermented food treats the heartburn for which Pharma hawks dangerous proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). Omega-3 fats such as krill oil and other nonprescription products lower heart disease risks without using dangerous statins.
Prescription drugs can also increase the need for supplements. If you take a diuretic, an acid-blocking PPI or the diabetes drug metformin, you are more likely to develop vitamin or mineral deficiencies.5
Traditional Media Outlets Question Value of Supplements
In 2016, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a large study of U.S. supplement usage that found, according to The New York Times:6
"Americans spend more than $30 billion a year on dietary supplements — vitamins, minerals and herbal products, among others — many of which are unnecessary or of doubtful benefit to those taking them. That comes to about $100 a year for every man, woman and child for substances that are often of questionable value."
Elsewhere in recent years, negative news articles about vitamin C, vitamin A and beta-carotene, vitamin E, vitamin B6, vitamin D, calcium and multivitamins have run. Supplements like ginkgo biloba, echinacea, fish oil and ephedrine are also under attack, as are homeopathy and aromatherapy.7,8,9,10
Some articles, many written by medical professionals, say supplements are ineffective and a waste of your money; others actually accuse supplements of causing or risking physical harm and even shortening lives. Some medical specialists also accuse supplements of impeding or interfering with drugs taken for other medical conditions.11
In addition to print media and the web, TV news media have joined in the discrediting of the supplement industry, exposing alleged disreputable manufacturers and lobbyists.
While I would never defend unethical makers of supplements who put the public at risk, these same news shows largely give Big Pharma a pass even though prescription drugs put the public at a much greater risk. Prescription drug overdoses are the ninth leading cause of death in the U.S., and the death toll continues to rise thanks to the growing opioid addiction crisis.12
Pharma Is a Pot Calling the Kettle Black
Leading Pharma's campaign to discredit supplements is the charge that unproven health benefits, not backed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are claimed by supplement makers. Yet almost every major drug company has entered into a settlement for the same thing, known as "off-label marketing" in the prescription drug world.
At least 31 drug companies have been charged with such false promotion including Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, Forest, Amgen and Allergan.13
Pfizer paid a $430 million fine for off-label marketing of Neurontin for the non-FDA approved indication of bipolar disorder.14 Eli Lilly engaged in another off-label marketing scheme, trying to market the selective estrogen receptor modulator Evista for the unapproved FDA indication of prevention of breast cancer, and unleashed hundreds of drug reps to sell the unapproved use.
Reps were told to hide a disclosure page that said, "The effectiveness of [Evista] in reducing the risk of breast cancer has not yet been established," from the doctors they were trying to sell on the drug, according to the Department of Justice.15 Scott Gottlieb, the new FDA Commissioner, drug stock trader and Pharma consultant, defended Evista's off-label marketing in a Wall Street Journal oped.16
Questions About Product Purity Cut Both Ways
Another way that Pharma-friendly voices try to discredit supplements they have yet to sell themselves is through raising questions about their purity, label accuracy and manufacturing process. Here is a quote from Dr. Paul A. Offit, one of the nation's leading drug and vaccine defenders, in an interview about his 2014 book "Do You Believe in Magic?" on Medscape:17
"Look at what happened with this vitamin-maker called Purity First. Purity First, a few weeks ago, had all of its products recalled by the FDA. They made three products. They made vitamin C. They made a multimineral preparation, and they made a B-complex vitamin preparation.
What happened was there were 25 women in Connecticut who started to develop symptoms of increased hair where they didn't want hair to be, deepening of the voice, and loss of menstrual cycles because they were inadvertently taking anabolic steroids.
Anabolic steroids had contaminated those preparations. How does that happen?... Just imagine if vaccines were inadvertently contaminated with anabolic steroids. You would never hear the end of it, but here somehow it all gets a free pass."
Offit is dead wrong. Drugs, vaccines and medical products are frequently recalled for quality and contamination though recalls are seldom reported in the mainstream press. In April 2017, GlaxoSmithKline recalled nearly 600,000 defective Ventolin inhalers.18 In March 2017, generic giant Mylan (of EpiPen fame) said it was recalling 4,005,177 bottles of the cholesterol fighter atorvastatin because of the "potential of an elevated bioburden with identification of objectionable organisms."19
Recalls of biologics (drugs that contain an ingredient extracted from a "biological" source such as cells from humans, animals or microorganisms) have increased significantly, especially for vaccines. From 2007 to 2010, 14 vaccine recalls and 13 recalls for immunoglobulins were made.
Additionally, vaccines are not adequately tested for safety and effectiveness using methodologically sound scientific studies before they are licensed, so all of their side effects and long-term negative health outcomes are often unknown.
Examples of Supplements, Essential Oils and Homeopathy Therapy at Work
The medical literature includes notable examples of supplements and natural remedies that function as valuable medicines. Why do we so rarely, if ever, hear of them on health news sites or TV? Supplements and natural substances cannot be patented and hence present no profit potential for Pharma no matter how dramatic their actions. Here are some supplements for which there is promising evidence of effectiveness:
Folic acid, when added to enalapril (an ACE inhibitor used to treat high blood pressure, diabetic kidney disease and heart failure) produced a significant reduction in stroke occurrence in 2015 JAMA research.20
Oregano might be effective against the norovirus, say investigators at the University of Arizona.21
High doses of vitamin C may be useful in the treatment of ovarian cancer, boost the power of chemotherapy and ward off stroke, research indicates.22,23,24
Multivitamins and olive oil are under investigation for their roles in managing breast cancer.25,26
A compound found in a Japanese mushroom could be a cure for the currently untreatable human papilloma virus.27
Vitamin E likely plays an important role in deterring miscarriage.28
Preliminary evidence even suggests that micronutrients could be beneficial in treating adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to 2014 research published in The British Journal of Psychiatry.29
When children with ADHD inhaled vetiver essential oil three times a day for 30 days they had improved brain wave patterns and behavior and did better in school.
In patients with allergies, those using homeopathy reported improvements in nasal airflow compared with a placebo group and researchers described a "clear, significant and clinically relevant improvement in nasal inspiratory peak flow, similar to that found with topical steroids."
Don't Rule Out Vitamin D
In the past few years, vitamin D has gone from a vitamin "hero" whose deficiency potentially explained many maladies, to VNG (Vitamin Non Grata).30,31 The same flip-flop has been seen with calcium, once a good guy, now potentially another supplemental bad guy.32 In fact, vitamin D has been so demonized, the pro-Pharma Forbes site actually writes:33
"Vitamin D supplements, to put it plainly, are a waste of money. (For those concerned about osteoporosis, the widely used drug alendronate (Fosamax®), has been shown to increase bone density by about 5 percent, as explained in a 2011 article by Dr. Sundeep Khosia. But Fosamax has side effects.)"
The "side effects" mentioned by Forbes are an understatement. Bisphosphonate bone drugs such as Fosamax and Boniva have been linked to esophageal cancer, jawbone death, heart problems, intractable pain and the very fractures they are supposed to prevent.34 They are one of the most dangerous drug classes ever marketed.
Far from a waste of money, vitamin D made such a difference in a 2014 breast cancer survival study, an investigator said "There is no compelling reason to wait for further studies to incorporate vitamin D supplements into standard care regimens."35 Research suggests it may have a valuable role in multiple sclerosis management, diabetes and depression, chronic liver disease and diseases of older age.36,37,38,39
Even as the drug industry attacks the safety, reliability and effectiveness of vitamins and supplements, it creates them itself. In 2013, PGT Healthcare LLP (a venture of Procter & Gamble, Teva and Swisse Wellness) said it would expand its range of more than 100 vitamins, minerals and supplements.40
Other drug giants are also in the supplement business. Sometimes making vitamins results in drug companies making positive instead of negative statements. Here is what research funded by Roche (now DSM Nutritional Products) BASF and Pfizer found about multivitamins41
"A daily multivitamin can help a man reduce his risk of cancer, according to new research from Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH). The first-of-its kind study will be presented October 17 at the 11th Annual AACR International Conference on Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research and published online the same day in the Journal of the American Medical Association."
Marketing vitamins also subjects Big Pharma to the same false claims charges it cites about the supplement industry. Pfizer, which makes Centrum products, was sued to remove its claims that the products support "energy and immunity," "heart health," "eye health," "breast health," "bone health" and "colon health."42
And although Merck announced December 14 that it plans to sell its subsidiary, Seven Seas, a quick look at its Seven Seas Multivitamin Complete reveals claims that it contains ingredients that "provide adults with energy … as well as a healthy heart … good eye sight, healthy bones and digestion system."43