Telling the Whole Truth

I’m taking issue with The New York Times for unbalanced reporting today. All I’m asking for is a fair and level playing field.

A story published in today’s Science Times seems a bit biased. While it is appropriately labeled as an essay, the piece (Diet Supplements and Safety: Some Disquieting Data) is essentially an excuse by Dan Hurley to promote his latest book, Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America’s Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry. The essay rehashes old criticisms of the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), bringing out the tired but true slogan that natural does not equal safe. Don’t misunderstand me – I absolutely agree. This is a really important concept. In fact, I often cite the following statement in my lectures: “It is a very prevalent error that a remedy’s being composed entirely of vegetable substances is a sure proof that it is innocuous” (from an anonymous doctor from the 1800’s, quoted in James Whorton’s excellent Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America). DSHEA does dangerously allow supplement manufacturers special dispensation as a unregulated industry, and as I noted in an ABC World News Tonight piece, this can pose risks for children and their families.

Yet both the Times essay and the ABC segment only tell half the story, and with obvious bias. This isn’t news. It’s opinion. I know, “essay” is opinion, but many readers will assume the facts in the story to be accurate as a basis for the opinion. The new “facts” mentioned in Hurley’s commentary center on adverse reactions attributed to herbal medicines and dietary supplements to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. These reactions are not proven to be cause and effect – they are simply reports from people calling in to say, “I gave little Johnny his melatonin, and he ended up in the hospital.” Do some of these reports reflect cause-and-effect? Of course. How many? Who knows. We must do a better job tracking both the numerator and denominator regarding safety of herbs and supplements. But this data is only valuable as the basis for a warning.

Speaking of warnings, just last week, a tiny little press release by the Centers for Disease Control eeked its way out. Essentially, the statement warned that parents should use great caution when using cold and cough medicines for their children under two years old. This is not new news either – the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued warnings along these lines for years. These symptom-relief meds don’t work very well, and as the CDC warning notes, many children and infants ended up in the ER following adverse reactions to over-the-counter cough and cold medications. Yet the coverage of this important warning was so minimal, it makes you wonder about news coverage bias based on pharma sponsorship. As Hurley himself points out, “Advocates of the products correctly point out that the poison centers’ figures do not prove a causal link between a product and a reaction and that, in any case, far more people are injured and killed by drugs.”

I am an advocate only for treatments that are safe and effective, CAM or conventional – and for the truth. I have one opinion on drug and supplement safety, and it is that children have suffered far too long without equal time and money spent on medication AND botanical research. We owe them both.

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