Last month, CVS announced that all vitamins and supplements sold at their pharmacies will undergo third party testing to verify the accuracy of the ingredients listed. Named the ‘Tested to Be Trusted’ program, it’s the latest move for CVS in their goal to help shoppers better their health.
Consumers often assume that vitamins and supplements are safe because they are marked as ‘natural’. In reality, the safety of these products depends on many factors, including any comorbid conditions a person may have, the manufacturing quality, and the amount of the ‘active’ ingredient. Over time, consumer confidence has declined in the reliability of these products; however, there are manufacturers that pride themselves on sourcing, discovering, and producing natural and efficacious products. It’s the responsibility of the supplier to source their ingredients from these manufacturers. Consumers deserve the right to an authentic product.
Hilary Armstrong, a member of the medical strategy team in Fingerpaint’s Saratoga Springs office, discussed the potential impact on healthcare marketing.
How are supplements currently regulated?
Armstrong: Although most people can get most, if not all, of the nutrients they need from food, millions take supplements as part of their health. This is evidenced by 3 out of every 4 Americans taking a supplement regularly, contributing to the nearly $40 billion business.
The FDA does not have the authority to review dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed. Manufacturers and distributors are responsible for making sure the products they sell are safe. This includes ensuring they do not contain contaminants or impurities and are accurately labeled. If a serious problem occurs, it’s on the manufacturer to report it, and the FDA can then take action. Essentially, dietary supplements are considered safe until proven otherwise.
Are there guidelines around marketing supplements?
Armstrong: Unlike drugs, supplements are not permitted to be marketed for the purpose of treating, diagnosing, preventing, or curing diseases (i.e., they should not make disease claims such as ‘lowers high cholesterol’). However, supplements can have strong biological effects and can be unsafe for some individuals. Combining supplements, using them in combination with prescription medications, or taking too many can result in adverse events.
In February 2019, then-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb published a statement on a new plan to regulate dietary supplements, the first progression in 25 years. The FDA acknowledged the need for closer scrutiny in parallel with the growth of adulterated and misbranded products. At the time of the statement, the FDA took action against 17 companies marketing dietary supplements claiming to treat Alzheimer’s disease.
How will this affect the healthcare marketing industry?
Armstrong: The move by CVS to independently test vitamins and supplements in their stores is a smart one. The FDA is starting to investigate companies marketing supplements more closely, and it’s an easy next step to hold the distributors accountable as well.
It’s important for the industry to take note of this change. Consumers are likely to favor manufacturers and providers that verify the ingredients listed are accurate. In addition, any help in navigating this complex market, such as educational materials on the known risks and benefits of supplements, are likely to be well received.
I applaud CVS in their move to make the consumer market a safer place. As healthcare marketers, it’s important for us to keep our clients educated on policies and proper ways to market products to consumers, especially concerning fatal diseases where patients are often desperate for answers.