First Amendment Responsibility
The "right" to free speech means making good on health claims
I write about and criticize the supplements industry (and its salespeople) for a number of reasons, though it’s important to note that I’m not anti-supplements. Ideally, supplementation address a deficiency. Over the past year, I’ve watched the course of supplementation my wife was put on for iron deficiency—and the extreme headaches and lethargy she experienced while tapering off the protocol, a stark reminder that supplements are not only helpful (as often advertised), but that everything we put into our bodies has the potential for a negative biological effect.
I’m also not against the fact that clinical trials don’t verify everything sold on shelves, as supplements don’t require testing. I’ve been on a supplementation of B12 and lysine for over a year as I’ve long suffered from chronic canker sore outbreaks. These supplements have mixed clinical results for canker sores. Yet I haven’t had an outbreak since starting this protocol. I’m fine with experimentation provided the potential risks are understood, as is the case with low-cost and widely available supplements like these. (It gets a lot trickier with multivitamin supplements, which I’ll address next week.)
My biggest issue involves ow supplements are marketed: companies and influencers champion them as cure-alls for conditions while downplaying (or outright ignoring) potential side effects. As it turns out, such an approach is baked into the industry. From the earliest signs of regulation in the early 20th century, supplements manufacturers have rigorously fought back against anything preventing them going direct to consumer with little to no oversight.
Interestingly, supplements manufacturers positioned their right to sell untested medications as a First Amendment issue beginning in the 1940s. This makes sense, given that’s how supplements are sometimes presented in the Covid era: Big Pharma is eternally evil, so I have the “right” to state that this or that vitamin or mineral does this or that health thing.
Which isn’t fair to people seeking treatment. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want, or, as often happens with supplements hawkers, refuse to take responsibility when the health claims don't pan out.
This week I’ll look at the free speech argument that was made by manufacturers in the 20th century, and then next week I’ll dive into the consequences of those regulatory moves—and how companies are continuing to profit from a near-absent lack of regulation while ignoring potential negative interactions with their products.
First, a little history.