Opinion: The Debate Over Age Restriction on Dietary Supplements

The CEO of Lief Labs, Adel Villalobos, shares his thoughts on the proposed legislation concerning age restrictions for dietary supplements.

 

Sometimes a comparison can help to understand policy issues, but sometimes it’s just an intentional tactic to miscast a debate to get what you want. An op-ed in a California paper recently compared cigarettes to legal, safe, and effective weight management products. The purported resemblance doesn’t hold up and discredits beneficial dietary supplements in an effort to promote unfounded and unwise legislation.

I’m the CEO of Lief Labs, based right here in California; we manufacture dietary supplements for 100’s of brands. Our product line ranges from general wellness products to immune support, to, yes, weight management products. Our mission is to help people live healthier lives, a goal that is very much top-of-mind during a global pandemic. These products have become quite mainstream: four out of five Americans use dietary supplements, according to recent published research.

All of these products are regulated by FDA as dietary supplements (a category of food), and subject to routine inspections, adverse event reporting and specific labeling requirements.

Sounds like a world away from cigarettes, right? But a recent editorial dismissed some of my company’s products as “diet pills” and equated them to cigarettes, arguing that the state of California should pass legislation to restrict them with age limits, warning signs and limited access “like cigarettes.” But why?

While the legislation seems well-intentioned, there is no reasonable connection between the problem and the purported solution. The authors correctly identify that eating disorders are a serious health problem for young people. As a father myself, I have ongoing concerns about low self-esteem and body dysmorphia, both of which are fueled by constant social pressures and further boosted by social media. But a solution that doesn’t actually address the problem is no solution at all and distracts from constructive measures that might address the legitimate and underlying concerns.

Here are the facts: no credible scientific evidence gives credence to the assertion that dietary supplement products for weight management cause or in any way promote body dysmorphia or eating disorders. It’s not as if it is a close call. There’s none. Zero.

Some studies do suggest there is an association between the use of weight management products and eating disorders. That isn’t surprising: similar associations for eating disorders exist with compulsive exercising and skipping meals. They don’t cause eating disorders either, but all these behaviors can result from body dysmorphia. It’s like saying eating ice cream causes hot weather. Two behaviors may commonly occur together – but to say that one causes the other – without any evidence at all – is foolhardy and leads to bad policy.

Passing a law that restricts the sale of these products to certain age groups – or worse, placing them behind the counter or in locked compartments in retail stores – would only introduce new problems. For instance, weight management products carried in established, reputable stores can be expected to be legitimate. But if these products are restricted in California retail stores, under-aged would-be buyers will simply turn to the internet to purchase alternative products where age restrictions cannot be enforced. Because this proposed law doesn’t extend to policing the web, it is short sighted and could potentially lead consumers to products that contain illegal and possibly harmful substances — or may be counterfeit altogether.

So, yes, I’m very concerned about the eating disorder crisis. I would support constructive efforts to address this public risk to our young people. But treating legitimate products as contraband and labeling them like you would cigarettes won’t solve the problem. It will simply create new ones.

 

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