National Eating Disorders Association

Putting Kids Before Profits: Massachusetts Campaign Takes Dietary Supplements to Task.

S. Bryn Austin, ScD, and Beth Mayer, LICSW

Think dietary supplements are healthy and safe, right? Think again. Sure, they are in every local health food store, pharmacy, and grocery, but because of a loophole the size of the Grand Canyon in federal law, the usual government safeguards we depend on to keep our food and drugs safe do not apply to dietary supplements. But this hasn’t stopped the dietary supplements industry from making money hand over fist on products making all sorts of claims of being effective for weight loss and muscle building, often promising “natural,” quick and easy results. The market for dietary supplements is a $32 billion a year industry, and half of all adults in the United States report regular use of supplements.1,2 

And it’s not just adults. Teens are also an important part of the market for these products. A national study found that more than 30 percent of adolescents use dietary supplements of any kind regularly, while 11% had ever used weight-loss supplements, and 5% had ever used creatine,3 a supplement marketed for muscle building that has been linked with testicular cancer.4 Young people -- both girls and boys, some with eating disorders and many who struggle with body image -- are most vulnerable to the false promises of these products. And like most adults, these young people assume that our government will ensure supplements on store shelves are safe.

Sadly, this misconception could not be further from the truth.

These products are often adulterated with prescription medications, steroids, or sometimes even heavy metals. They are routinely mislabeled and have unclear dosing recommendations. In fact, many have actually been linked to significant adverse health effects including testicular cancer, stroke, and severe liver injury, sometimes requiring transplant or even leading to death. 

Without federal leadership to protect youth and consumers of all ages, we must demand that our state governments take action. This month in Massachusetts, we just kicked off the Stop Feeding Kids Lies campaign to support MA House Bill No. 3471 - #SafeSupplementsMA. We need your help in the fight for safer supplements and to protect young people from these deceptive and sometimes dangerous products.

In Massachusetts, this critical public health issue has caught the attention of lawmakers, and State Representative Kay Khan (D-Newton) introduced a bill (MA House Bill No. 3471) that, if passed, would regulate the sale of dietary supplements for weight loss or muscle building. 

The bill would ban the sale of these dangerous products to minors younger than 18 years and move these supplements from the open shelves to behind the counter – requiring consumers ages 18 years and older to request the products directly from a manager, pharmacist, or other supervisory personnel.

Without the protections the Massachusetts bill calls for, dietary supplements can easily be purchased by youth and adults of all ages at pharmacies, grocery stores, health stores, and others places. However, these readily available products are woefully under regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) due to the short-sighted Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act passed by Congress in 1994. With this act, Congress even prohibited the FDA from prescreening dietary supplements for safety or efficacy before they can be released onto the market.

As a result, the FDA has almost no chance of finding out about unsafe supplements on the market until after healthcare professionals file reports with the government of serious adverse incidents such as liver injury or even death among consumers.1 

Please join us on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015, at 11am for a legislative briefing on dietary supplements at the Massachusetts State House in room 350 and take part in the constituent lobby day at the MA State House on this same afternoon to urge our state representatives to support this much needed bill. We will also need your support at the hearing for this bill before the MA State Legislature’s Public Health Committee on Thurs. Sept. 17th, at 1PM in room A2 of the MA State House. Click here to sign up for lobby day on Sept. 9 and we’ll send you an email with confirmation details. If you can’t attend, please contact your legislators and urge them to support the health, safety, and wellbeing of the young people of Massachusetts and by taking action online! 

Join us in urging Massachusetts state legislators to support MA House Bill No. 3471.

Getting these products out of the hands of kids and behind the counter could save lives.


About the Authors:

S. Bryn Austin, ScD, is Director of the Strategic Training Initiative to Prevent Eating Disorders ( based at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Boston Children’s Hospital in Boston, MA. Beth Mayer, LICSW, is Executive Director of the Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association ( in Newton, MA. Together they are co-directing the Stop Feeding Kids Lies Campaign to Support MA House Bill #3471 in partnership with the National Eating Disorders Association. Campaign hashtag: #SafeSupplementsMA 



1 Cohen PA. Hazards of hindsight – monitoring the safety of nutritional supplements. New England Journal of Medicine 2014; 370(14): 1277-1280.
2 Dickinson A, Blatman J, El-Dash N, Franco JC. Consumer usage and reasons for using dietary supplements: Report of a series of surveys. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 2014; 33(2): 176-182.
3 Wilson KM, Klein JD, Sesselberg TS, et al. Use of complementary medicine and dietary supplements among U.S. adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health 2006; 38: 385-394.
4 Li N, Hauser R, Holford T, et al. Muscle-building supplement use and increased risk of testicular germ cell cancer in men from Connecticut and Massachusetts. Br J Cancer. 2015;112(7):1247-1250.