There’s a little voice inside us that edits what we say before we say it—sometimes softer than we’d like. How many of us, seconds after we’ve put our foot in our mouths, would have loved to hire an “editor of pre-speech” to take care of our words before we say them? I would have gladly volunteered to take this position for some of the folks who spoke out this month to the media about dietary supplements. Two important regulatory and legislative issues developed that were framed in, frankly, terrible language. 
The Risk They Take
Regardless of whether you love or hate the proposed healthcare reform bill, there’s something we can all agree on: it would be great to have alternative therapies supported by legislators. One aspect of the proposed health legislation that’s currently being batted about in the Senate would encourage healthcare providers to incorporate alternative medicine.

The actual language is hazy, but some feel it leaves open a little room to have natural treatments (like naturopathy and acupuncture) covered by insurance. In fact, the bill defines certain alternative healthcare practitioners as healthcare providers; it also will fund teams of traditional and alternative medicine providers that collaborate on patient care. We can thank Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) for negotiating such language that “shall not discriminate” against legitimate healthcare providers from various backgrounds.

But, here’s the problem. The lingo that opponents are using to frame their argument casts alternative methods as “risky” and “unproven,” saying they would reduce the “quality and safety of patient care,” according to comments printed in the Chicago Tribune. A coalition of surgeons and anesthesiologists indicated in the same story that allowing naturopathy to be covered by insurance “would create patient confusion over greatly differing levels of education, skills and training among health care professionals.”

Risky? I’d be generous to say this message is misleading; one could easily and accurately use it to describe many prescription drugs, in fact. Consider the risks of taking statins (see this month’s Vitamin Connection on page 42 for more) or even acetaminophen that causes liver toxicity…and these are considered common and safe beyond question. Shall we talk chemotherapeutics or radiation therapy? Funny, there’s probably no hesitation to cover such remedies. The double standard is striking—and sad.

Also disturbing is the notion that those who believe in natural remedies have a less trustworthy skill set than traditional doctors. False. First, there are many fine traditional physicians who went through medical school and, yes, still advise patients to use dietary supplements. I recently had a conversation with one who believes in vegetarian enzymes and another who supports EPA/DHA in combination with other treatments. Second, the insinuation that providers of natural remedies are uneducated is laughable. Again, many naturpaths have dual medical and nutrition degrees and, nearly all have many years of education under their belts. Clearly, this statement could have used a preemptive rewrite!

Taking third prize in the Unfortunate Language Contest was the verbiage surrounding the announcement that a coalition rounded up by the United Stated Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) will ask Congress to better regulate dietary supplements (page 10). They, like many in our industry, feel that those who sell anabolic steroids masquerading as dietary supplements need to be reigned in. But why incriminate the entire dietary supplement industry by grouping them in “Supplement Safety Now”?  In fact, these items are imposters and not dietary supplements at all. Again, while the idea that steroids shouldn’t fall into the hands of an unsuspecting athlete has merit, the way it’s framed is unfair. How about “Get the Guilty Guys Now“ or “Fine Faulty Formulators Now”? Okay, I’ll work on it.

Now, getting back to my first point. There’s no way for us to edit this language before the ink hits the newspaper page. But one thing we can do is to make sure we weigh in on these issues, and support what trade associations are doing to be more accurate voices in the conversation (see page 48 for a message from AHPA). WF

Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner
Editor/Associate Publisher

Published in WholeFoods, January 2010