Are Vitamins Useless?
Are vitamin pills even necessary? – The Week
A recent long-term study of more than 400,000 people concluded that “most vitamin supplements [have] no clear benefit” and warned that excess vitamin E and beta-carotene may actually weaken the immune system’s ability to kill cancer cells. “The case is closed,” the study authors wrote. “Enough is enough.”
Is it ethical to sell a product which is in general a simple placebo?
In the Wizard of Oz, the fake wizard gives the Cowardly Lion, a horrible tasting concoction. He tells the lion that this “formula” will give him courage. The lion drinks the horrible drink and the wizard asks him how he feels. The lion replies, “Full of courage.”
So, we who spend from a few to hundreds of dollars on vitamins may also be said to be full of it.
How did a literate modern population fall into the same black hole of ignorance that afflicted Americans during the golden age of patent medicine, when laudanum and alcohol laden brews were sold to the masses for incredible profits?
During the nineteenth century, “entrepeneurs” like Lidya E. Pinkham sold millions of dollars of a useless product and established the science of modern advertising. And she was just one of countless thousands of sellers. In the first half of the twentieth century, John R. Brinkley, Medical Charlatan, sold vials of colored water apparently to boost virility. He had other means of increasing virility which I will happily pass on discussing but if you want to look it up, I can’t stop you. How about “Dr. Isaac Thompson’s Celebrated Eye Water?” It sold for almost two hundred years. When the Food and Drug Act was passed, it was discovered what was in it – opium, alcohol and zinc sulphate.
But did we learn anything from this as a culture? How come we still hope that some spurious product will make us all better? Is the need for medicine, in a real sense, magic, a human craving?
I’m uncomfortable writing about this. So many people have bragged to me about the vitamins they take and the benefits they experienced. How do you argue with people who experienced real progress because they believed? Placebo effects are in a sense real, in that confidence often has us acting in our own behalf when otherwise we might not.
But is encouraging a placebo effect, a ethical rationale for selling an otherwise useless product?
The Rational Consumer?
In economics, we have the idea of the rational buyer, the human who bases his purchases on knowledge, facts. The idea is that this paragon will always choose the best product. I make fun of this concept all the time since it disregards the very real irrationality that afflicts humanity. But assuming the theory has validity how does the rational human choose the best product when there is an absence of knowledge? – A deliberate absence of knowledge in this case.
The FDA’s permission is not required for the sale of supplements. The Food and Drug Administration can and does regulate the products after they have entered the market. However, the agency has limited resources and is essentially playing the game of “whack a mole” with the sellers.
Let me give you an idea of the problems the FDA uncovers with these products –
How is a consumer supposed to understand the dangers of these products when there are literally thousands of them and the regulators can only react to problems?
The vitamin industry sells 12 billion dollars worth of product to Americans each year. The advertisements are everywhere. But no matter how clever the ads, the claims of benefits so convincing, and the assurances of “science,” the majority of these products are useless.
It is wrong to sell products that do not live up to their claims. It’s lying and fraud.
Let’s regulate the industry fully and find out what few items work and throw the rest to the wind.