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Sheffield '11: Consumer protection at Brown

It always makes me sad when I go to the Brown Bookstore or the pharmacy and see them selling products that do nothing for students' health, save for giving them a walletectomy. The University should have better standards and stop selling medicinal products for which there is no good evidence of efficacy and safety.

I have seen Airborne, Cold-Eeze and large doses of Vitamin C all being sold at Brown with the suggestion that they can prevent or stop colds. They can only imply these claims because otherwise, the corporations that sell them would be legally required to perform studies to demonstrate the efficacy and safety of their products before being approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Without products that can jump these hurdles, the companies are left saying things to make people think their products are beneficial without making specific medical claims.

The primary example of this is HeadOn — which is by far the master of making medical claims without making medical claims. What does HeadOn do? If you have watched any television within the past few years, you know that it supposedly cures headaches. But the commercials do not say that. They just repeat "HeadOn: apply directly to the forehead" multiple times while an actress demonstrates the technique. They manage to get most people to know what their product supposedly does without really telling them.

Such is the absurdity allowed by the Dietary Health and Supplement Act, which allows manufacturers to market a product with general claims about what it does to your body. By now, everyone can probably think of a handful of products with advertisements claiming each one "boosts the immune system." That might make sense if they were marketed to people with immune deficiencies, but it is meaningless for most people since they already have healthy immune systems. Does the claim mean that the product causes your immune system to attack more objects that are suspicious and give you an autoimmune disease? Does it keep your immune system from falling into disrepair? It sure sounds like it does something, but it is imprecise enough to allow the corporations marketing these remedies to make the claim without having to face the legal ramifications of failing to deliver.

This is not just a question of selling harmless placebos to unsuspecting students. Under the current law, what products sell now do not have to go through trials to demonstrate safety.

Some of these products are indeed safe. Homeopathy, for example, is essentially water. So, other than drowning the taker, there is little harm that it could do. Meanwhile, others are far more troubling.

Homeopathy follows several principles. The first one is that like cures like. Want a homeopathic sleeping pill? Take caffeine. But that is too stupid — even for homeopaths — so the next principle is that the more diluted an ingredient is, the stronger it is. Just let this idea sink in — in the real world, more of something will generally produce more of an effect, while in the world of homeopathy, taking less will produce a greater effect. The principles of homeopathy just get sillier as you go along.

Homeopathic remedies tend to be so diluted that there is probably no active ingredient left in them. There are something like 10 to the 24th power molecules of water in a homeopathic dose, so if you buy a 25X remedy — one that has been diluted one part in 10 a total of 25 times — you would average a tenth of a molecule of ingredient each time you took a pill. The really powerful stuff — according to homeopaths — gets diluted hundreds of times. If you dropped one molecule of the substance into a volume of water equal to that of the entire universe, the resulting concoction would not be as diluted as what homeopaths sell.

Unfortunately, not all products marketed as homeopathic are so benignly absent of active ingredients. There are a number of products claiming to treat colds that are labeled as homeopathic but only have a dilution of 2X — one part in a hundred — so the chemicals they add are actually present.

In 2009, Zicam pulled some of its homeopathic-but-with-active-ingredients products from shelves when the FDA amassed enough evidence that it caused people to lose their sense of smell. Who could have guessed that sticking zinc-laced swabs up your nose might damage your sense of smell? But federal law for these types of products is far more lenient than it is for pharmaceuticals, so the makers of Zicam were allowed to sell their product without bothering to check if it might harm consumers.

The University needs to stop profiting off of its students with products that do not deliver their implied benefits. Doing so not only takes advantage of students, but also puts them at risk for the potential side effects of these concoctions.

David Sheffield '11 is a mathematical physics concentrator, who boosts your well-being.* He can be contacted at david_sheffield@brown.edu. *This columnist is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.




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