VITAMIN LEADERS SIT OUT FIGHT

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Major vitamin marketers are watching the struggle between the government and less mainstream supplement makers from a distance, adopting the role of vaguely interested observers of someone else's fight.

The moratorium that exempted supplements from regulation under the Nutrition Labeling & Education Act of 1990 ended Dec. 15. Companies now have six months to comply with Food & Drug Administration requirements, which limit how vitamins, minerals and herbs may be marketed. Health claims for supplements will need "significant scientific agreement," as is already the case for claims made by food marketers.

But supplement marketers won't swallow that pill easily.

Late last month, one supplements group, the Council for Responsible Nutrition, called for a one-year extension of the compliance date, claiming it will cost more than $100 million to implement by June 30.

Also, a campaign supporting legislation by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) and Rep. Bill Richardson (D., N.M.) that would exempt the industry from the nutrition labeling act will continue when Congress reconvenes Jan. 25.

The struggle has received a great deal of media attention, due in large part to celebrity support for the supplement industry's efforts.

Public service announcements created in-house by the Health Freedom Task Force feature such stars as Mel Gibson, Whoopi Goldberg and Randy Travis, and warn that the FDA wants to block consumer access to vitamins.

A public service ad produced by the Nutritional Health Alliance and starring Victoria Principal made a similar argument earlier in 1993.

The Health Freedom Task Force operates from the headquarters of supplement marketer SuperNutrition; the Nutritional Health Alliance was founded by Gerald Kessler, former ceo of Nature's Plus, another supplement marketer.

Both groups have won public support. Congressional aides reported more mail on the issue than for nearly any other in recent months, except perhaps the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But despite blanket claims by the supplement industry about the FDA's attack on all supplements, the makers of such household-name brands as Theragran, Centrum and One-A-Day do not seem overly concerned.

"We aren't involved in any activity around supplements legislation," said a spokeswoman for Bristol-Myers Products, marketer of Theragran. "We're confident about the integrity of our products vis-a-vis FDA scrutiny and, as always, we'll cooperate fully with any FDA directives."

Lederle Laboratories, the No. 1 vitamin marketer with brands like Centrum and Protegra, issued a statement supporting "the spirit of the NLEA to protect consumers from unsafe products and fraudulent product claims."

One executive spoke more bluntly after requesting anonymity: "We're interested in what's going on, of course. But this really doesn't effect us because we're not going to claim we have the cure to AIDS or cancer like some of these wacky supplements guys do.

"If FDA wants us to change some of the information on our labels, that's fine. We don't have any fear that they'll pull our products off the shelves for misleading claims-and neither does any other marketer who isn't trying to rip off and exploit consumers."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, joined with the American Association of Retired Persons and American Heart Association last month to decry the "scare tactics" of some supplement marketers and said the FDA's efforts would affect only 20% of the industry.

On the other side of the issue, the Health Freedom Task Force argues that the industry's products are 2,000 times safer than over-the-counter drugs and 1 million times safer than prescription drugs. A spokeswoman for the task force said limiting supplements would limit consumers' access to "low-cost effective healthcare."M

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Mel Gibson and Whoopi Goldberg head the list of celebrities speaking out in PSAs against government regulation of the supplement industry.

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