Natural products industry trade associations are taking action to fight age-restrictions bills that seek to prohibit access of certain nutritional supplements to those under the age of 18. Experts stress that the stakes for natural products retailers and the industry overall are high, as bills are proposed in several states, and the push to restrict access to supplements already has succeeded in New York state, despite opposition and efforts to oppose the bill from the natural products industry. As WholeFoods has reported, Governor Kathy Hochul signed A.5610/S.5823 into law in October. This law, which would likely take effect in April 2024, will ban the sale of weight loss and sports nutrition dietary supplements to New York consumers under the age of 18. In California, a similar law was vetoed by California Governor Gavin Newsom.

On November 15, the Natural Products Association (NPA) and the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) testified in opposition of H2215/S1465, a proposal by the Massachusetts State Legislature that would prohibit the sale of over-the-counter diet pills and dietary supplements for weight loss or muscle building to those under 18. The proposal calls out creatine, green tea extract, raspberry ketone, garcinia cambogia, and green coffee bean extract, while leaving the language open to include other ingredients and formulations.

The proposal has the support of STRIPED, which said the legislation "would protect kids from dangerously underregulated over-the-counter diet pills and muscle-building supplements by restricting the sale to adults 18 years or older."

As Susan J. Hewlings, Ph.D., RD, and Douglas S. Kalman, Ph.D., RD, have explained to WholeFoods Magazine readers,  the Harvard-based organization STRIPED (Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders) " claims that dietary supplements, especially those that they refer to as diet pills, cause eating disorders." Regarding age restricted legislation that has been proposed in several states including New Jersey, Rhode Island, California, Colorado, Missouri, Maryland, and Massachusetts, Drs. Hewlings and Kalman said, "While the details of the proposed legislation vary from state to state, the main objective of all of them is to limit access of teens to specific dietary supplements that they refer to as 'weight loss' or 'diet' supplements. These include protein, creatine, branched chain amino acids, and diet pills, which are not clearly defined. The research they reference to support their platform is full of scientific holes, which are discussed in a recent review published in Nutrients."

Why are age restrictions bad for retailers, consumers, and the natural products industry at large?

Carlos Lopez, General Counsel for The Vitamin Shoppe, recently sat down with Michael O’Hara, Vice President Membership at NPA, to outline concerns with the recently enacted law in New York, with details on how it hurts consumers and will have substantial repercussions for the natural products industry.

Industry Associations Are Fighting Age Restriction Bills

Several experts provided written and/or in person testimonies at the hearing in Massachusetts on behalf of the natural products industry. Among them:

Kyle Turk, NPA’s Director of Government Affairs: “It’s disingenuous to claim there is a connection between eating disorders and the use of dietary supplements. The FDA’s surveillance tools have never found a connection between any supplement and eating disorders. If they did, they’d be required to use their enforcement authority to act. Sadly, in its current form, this legislation will prevent consumers from taking their health into their hands and restrict their ability to supplement their potentially nutrient-deficient diets, a fundamental lesson we learned during COVID-19.” Turk added that “supplements, which are easy to add to our daily diets, are often the first step many take toward greater nutritional awareness and healthy lifestyle choices.”

Michael Meirovitz, CRN’s Senior Director, Government Relations: While urging legislators to oppose the bill, Meirovitz stressed that CRN strongly sympathizes with anyone impacted by eating disorders and respects the intent of the bill sponsors, but noted, “this proposed legislation does nothing to help those who suffer with it.” Meirovitz emphasized “unequivocally that there is no credible scientific data that the products or ingredients identified in the legislation lead to, or cause, body dysmorphia, eating disorders or mental health issues.” 

Another issue Meirovitz highlighted is the many challenges Massachusetts consumers, retailers, and regulators would face if the bill was enacted. If this bill became law, it would require that consumers present proof of age at checkout, and would require affected products to be “behind the retail counter or in a locked case,” making it more difficult for consumers of all ages to find these items and compare labels to select the product that’s right for them. Meirovitz also said the broad and vague term “dietary supplement for weight loss or muscle-building” in the legislation creates difficulties for retailers to determine what’s actually covered.

CRN also noted that any age-restriction legislation passed at the state level does not prevent young people from purchasing these products from going to other states to purchase products, or to buy them from online retail sites where enforcement is nearly impossible. 

Susan Hewlings, R.D., Ph.D.: Dr. Hewlings, who published a peer-reviewed examination of the literature in the scientific journal Nutrients in April 2023 titled “Eating Disorders and Dietary Supplements: A Review of the Science,” called the bill "well indented, but misinformed." She emphasized that there is a lack of evidence in any scientific literature that dietary supplements are a cause of eating disorders. She told lawmakers that boiling down the causes of eating disorders to one thing reflects a lack of scientifically based evidence. "From a public health perspective, it holds back treatment and funding for the multidimensional and complex issue that is eating disorders."

Carlos Gutierrez, Vice President, State & Local Government Affairs, Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA): “CHPA opposes the two pieces of legislation considered by the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Public Health at Wednesday’s hearing, as they contain the most restrictive barriers to dietary supplements by any U.S. state to date. Since the language in both bills is extremely vague, if adopted, they may impact general health dietary supplements that are not intended or labeled for weight loss. Worst of all, both bills would require behind-the-counter placements of these products, which would severely limit access by adding unnecessary hurdles and unjustifiably imposing significant burdens on retailersespecially small businesses that lack behind the counter space. While we support reasonable and targeted safeguards, CHPA will never support policies that jeopardize consumers’ access to safe, beneficial, and well-regulated dietary supplements that millions rely on each day to support their overall health and wellness.

“Rather than restricting access to safe and beneficial products through overly burdensome and unprecedented restrictions, which will primarily hurt Massachusetts residents seeking to support their health, CHPA encourages the legislature to take a more targeted approach to this issue by specifically focusing on products marketed for weight loss or muscle building and not inadvertently applying restrictions to supplements for general health. We also recommend the legislature increase enforcement against any illegal products falsely marketed as dietary supplements for weight loss.”  

Looking ahead

Commenting on the hearing, Steve Mister, CRN President and CEO, said, “We remain hopeful that the committee will take a moment to look closely at the science in the submitted testimony and realize that this bill is trying to fix a complicated societal and medical issue with an oversimplified proposal. It conveniently scapegoats these products without providing meaningful solutions for young people who are affected by eating disorders.”

Regarding the recently passed NY law, NPA said that it will seek to overturn the law in court.

Related: New York Age Restriction Legislation Signed Into Law; Industry Reacts

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