'Natural Causes' by Dan Hurley

January 24, 2007

The $22 billion dietary supplement industry has launched an aggressive media campaign against an investigative reporter's new book. During five days in January, "Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America's Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry" (Broadway Books, Dec. 26) was blasted by the industry's leading trade groups not only in the usual blogs and press releases, but also during a two-part series about the book on CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.

Reporter Dan Hurley, a regular contributor to the "Science Times" section of The New York Times with 15 years' experience as a medical reporter for publications ranging from Medical Tribune to Family Circle and Psychology Today, spent nearly two years reviewing studies and court cases, speaking with politicians and public-policy experts and interviewing physicians, pharmacists, nurses, toxicologists, epidemiologists and public health officials--as well as victims and their families. The book includes 33 pages of source notes citing hundreds of studies and historical texts.

Hurley's analysis of 23 years of data from the U.S. Poison Control Centers, showing that over 1.6 million people have reported adverse reactions to vitamins, herbs and other dietary supplements since 1983, was published as an article by him in The New York Times on January 16. Marcia Angell, MD, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, called Natural Causes "simply the best book I've seen on this important subject," and praised it for being "authoritative." The Center for Science in the Public Interest called the book "an eye-opener for the millions of Americans who blindly rely on dietary supplements to promote their health."

Yet Steve Mister of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), an industry trade group, appeared on CBS's national newscast about the book on January 15 to say that Natural Causes wasn't "credible" because of its "lack of science, historical inaccuracies and emphasis on anecdotal evidence and opinion." The next day, industry executive Jon Benninger called in his Natural Products Insider blog for manufacturers to "fight back" against the book. "This industry needs to open its collective wallet and fund a multimillion dollar communications effort."

On January 19, the Canadian Health Food Association issued its own release, saying that it "flatly rejects" the book's conclusions, which it called "misleading." In contrast, Business Week, in a full-page review published on January 8, called the book "detailed" and "thorough," while Booklist, in a starred review, called it "exciting, provocative and substantive."

"I'm a journalist, not an advocate," Hurley said. "So it's ironic that my analysis of how the supplement industry has manipulated public perception over the last 35 years has itself become the focus of the industry's latest media campaign."

The book details how supplements from L-tryptophan to shark cartilage have received positive coverage from such respected outlets as "60 Minutes" and The New York Times before later being found to be dangerous. It notes that nearly $1 billion has been spent by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine without yet establishing the safety and efficacy of a single supplement. And it provides the first detailed history of how the industry has fought public-health laws in California and Texas, and has successfully won passage of Federal laws in the 1970s and 1990s over the objections of consumer and health advocacy groups.
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Random House/Broadway Books

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