Out of reach? Will the public get greater or less access to dietary supplements?

April 15, 2021
Robby Gardner

Robby Gardner is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles, specializing in fresh produce and health food ingredients.

National and state efforts could expand or restrict access to a number of dietary supplement products.

An estimated 70% of Americans take dietary supplements every day, and the scientific community is increasingly supporting their decision to do so. In a 2020 report, the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee acknowledged that dietary supplements can play a role in curbing nutrient deficiencies in subgroups of the population, such as children and pregnant women, stating that “…without dietary supplements, nutrient goals are difficult to achieve.”1

Given the mass popularity of and increasing support for dietary supplements, legislative efforts are being proposed to expand consumer access to these products in the U.S. At the same time, other initiatives threaten to restrict those who can buy them.

With so much at stake, dietary supplement manufacturers and advocates should be apprised on what’s taking place at national and state levels and make their voices heard.

Dietary Supplements on Capitol Hill

In the past year, members of Congress have made multiple attempts to expand consumer access to dietary supplements, though those attempts lack specificity and universal appeal in Congress.

In 2020, Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) introduced a bill to allow certain dietary supplements to be covered through Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs), yet the bill received no action beyond its introduction. An amendment with similar language was introduced by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Tim Scott (R-SC) for the Senate’s budget resolution in February 2021, but it failed to make it into the final language of the resolution despite receiving bipartisan support. Weeks later, Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Scott reintroduced the Healthcare Savings Act, previously introduced in 2017, for similar purpose.

Despite these recent shortcomings, the legislative fight is not over, and the House is likely to introduce its own version of such legislation later this year.

Most dietary supplements aren’t covered by healthcare insurers. If dietary supplements do become covered by HSAs and FSAs in the future, it would affect an estimated 22 million Americans who already have HSAs and FSAs and would represent a significant economic cost. Insurers would ultimately decide what types of dietary supplement would qualify for use of tax-deferred funds. Vitamins and minerals would likely be covered, but the fate of other ingredients such as botanicals (many of which are backed by extensive health research) is uncertain. The Natural Products Association (NPA; Washington, DC) supports these legislative efforts and says it would also like to see dietary supplement coverage under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) programs.

Dietary Supplements on the State Level

Compared to national efforts, attempts to legislate dietary supplements at the state level are very different. There are recent and ongoing attempts to restrict the sale of weight-loss and muscle-building dietary supplements in several U.S. states, including California, New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois. The restrictions range from placing these products under lock and key in retail stores, instituting 18+ age requirements for purchases, and imposing significant fines for retailers that fail to comply with new rules. Most recently, this week California's Assembly Health Committee voted yes on the state's own related legislation, AB 1341, which would restrict access to weight-loss and dietary supplements while imposing fines for their illegal sale greater than those of illegal sale of alcohol or tobacco. The bill is now headed to the state's Assembly Judiciary Committee.

NPA’s CEO and president Dan Fabricant, PhD, says that chief among industry concerns with this type of legislation is its lack of specificity. It’s generally unclear which ingredients and products would be classified as weight-loss or muscle-building products. Some ingredients commonly used in muscle-building products, such as milk powder and vitamin D, could theoretically be restricted under such laws despite their good safety profile and countless other nutritional uses.

What You Can Do

Dietary supplement manufacturers and other interested parties are urged to contact their members of Congress and state assembly in order to have their voices heard, whether in support of or against legislation. For further reading on federal and state campaigns and information on how to take action, NPA’s website is an extensive educational resource with action campaigns and weekly news updates.

Reference

  1. USDA, “Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee,” http://www.dietaryguidelines.gov