March 4, 2015
Dietary Supplements Versus OTC Drugs:
Misunderstanding Common

Madison, NJ—With the attorney general of one of the nation’s largest states cracking down on the sale of dietary supplements that don’t include what their labels say, a recently released survey also suggests that pharmacists and other health professionals are misinformed about the differences between OTC drugs and dietary supplements.

The survey from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind comes amidst controversy over dietary supplements, which often are sold on drugstore shelves. The New York attorney general, Government Accountability Office, and several U.S. senators have raised concerns that herbal supplements may not contain key ingredients noted on their bottle labels, citing major retailers. 

Letters were sent earlier this month from New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman to four major retailers—GNC, Target, Walmart, and Walgreens—for allegedly selling store brand herbal supplement products in New York that either could not be verified to contain the labeled substance, or which were found to contain ingredients not listed on the labels. The letters called for the retailers to immediately stop the sale of echinacea, ginseng, St. John’s Wort, and other products.

An ongoing investigation by the attorney general’s office found that, overall, just 21% of the test results from store brand herbal supplements included DNA verified from the plants listed on the products’ labels, according to a press release from the attorney general’s office.

The industry-supported PublicMind survey, meanwhile, was conducted across a randomly selected sample of 200 physicians and 150 pharmacists in the United States. It indicates that fewer than half of the respondents, 41%, knew that OTC products are regulated and approved by the FDA but dietary supplements are not.

The PublicMind survey, which also focused on omega-3 products, said that among physicians and pharmacists recommending a nonprescription omega-3 product to patients, more than four in five (85%) believed incorrectly that they had recommended an FDA-approved OTC product.

In addition, 30% of pharmacists and 22% of physicians stated incorrectly that prescription and dietary supplement omega-3 products are similar in strength and content.

“Dietary supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for content, safety or manufacturing processes,” said Rich Higginson, director of consumer research at PublicMind. “With confusion among health care professionals it is likely this may be even more confusing to patients.  Consumers may not know that there are no OTC omega-3s—only supplements or prescription products.”

The Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll, supported by Amarin Corporation, was conducted across the U.S. by telephone from February 20th through March 8th in 2013. Half of the pharmacists surveyed were employed by independent pharmacies and the other half by chain pharmacies.

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