Placebo Nation

2.18.15 Placebo Nation_IMAGE.jpg

By Bill Maher

Herbal supplements are a $61 billion a year industry in America, and despite all of the claims these pills make – they help your memory, digestion, mood, and, of course, your penis – the industry is almost entirely unregulated. None of the claims these supplements make have to be proven in clinical tests, however the pills are supposed to contain what they say on the label.

But it turns out they don’t. The New York Attorney General’s office recently announced they’d put herbal supplements from the largest providers (GNC, Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens, etc.) to the test and found that the St. John’s Wort has no St. John’s Wort in it, and the Ginkgo biloba has neither Ginko nor bilboa. And I don’t even want to tell you what’s in the “Echinacea.”

…Okay, I do. According to the investigation, what people are often getting are pills filled with crushed up wheat, or radish, or rice, or houseplants. Yes, when they DNA tested the supplements at Walgreens, the DNA of the product matched what was on the label only 18 percent of the time. At Wal-Mart, it was only 4 percent. This industry, by and large, is a massive multi-billion dollar fraud.

Lots of interesting angles on this story: For one, much of the money made in this industry goes through Utah, largely because Senator Orrin Hatch is the industry’s ally and protector. He wrote the legislation exempting the industry from F.D.A. oversight in 1994, and has been shielding it from federal regulations ever since. According to the New York Times, many members of his immediate family have gotten rich in the supplement game. His son, Scott, is a lobbyist for the industry. What John Kline is to for-profit colleges, Orrin Hatch is to herbal supplements.

For another, it’s a nice glimpse at the Republican/libertarian fantasy world where there’s no regulation. What have no regulations on the supplement industry gotten us? An industry that doesn’t need to prove that its products are even the least bit effective. An industry that doesn’t even pretend to make pills that match what’s on the label. We’re talking about fraud on a massive scale, protected by its benefactors in Congress.