WASHINGTON: The Natural Products Association (NPA), a trade group representing manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of dietary supplements, health and beauty, and other "natural" products, is bolstering communications efforts to counter what it calls inaccurate media reports, educate members about more restrictive Food & Drug Administration rules, and forestall potential legislation.
Dietary supplements, including vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and herbal supplements, are currently regulated under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, but following consumer complaints about misleading marketing and general concern about the safety of supplements, the FDA is expected soon to release new rules on supplement "good manufacturing practices," on which the NPA plans to hold educational seminars.
Dietary supplements may have a negative connotation with a number of consumers - ephedra, for instance, created a major media flurry in 2004 when its use was connected to a number of deaths and disabilities, leading to an FDA ban. But the NPA said it, in fact, supports accurate labeling and marketing and, to that end, oversees an industry-sponsored program called TruLabel, which provides certification of products' safety and absence of undeclared ingredients.
But the industry still faces skepticism among lawmakers. In the 110th Congress, bills in the House and Senate threaten to ban the supplement DHEA as an anabolic steroid, for instance, though the NPA disagrees. Also, a previously defeated bill, the Dietary Supplement Access and Awareness Act, which would replace the DSHEA and regulate supplements as if they were prescription drugs, could be reintroduced.
"Longtime foes of ours in Congress who are now in leadership positions have said publicly they will be looking at dietary supplements and whether they are appropriately regulated," said Tracy Taylor, NPA SVP of public affairs and strategic initiatives. "I think a lot of times with grassroots or lobbying efforts it's really to keep bills that are onerous from being passed."
Taylor noted that her group has been coordinating lobbying and communications efforts since 2004 with another industry-funded group, the Coalition to Preserve DSHEA, which runs the SaveOurSupplements.org Web site.
In addition, the NPA in March held its 10th annual "fly-in" on Capitol Hill, with close to 200 retailers and other industry representatives making personal visits to their members of Congress to win support for or against particular pieces of legislation.
Meanwhile, NPA members also see customers as important allies. "Leveraging our retailers, we can give them a way to engage with their customers and give customers an outlet to take action on issues they think are important," Taylor said, for example, by writing their members of Congress.
Trent Duffy, head of Duffy Public Relations Strategies, which was hired last fall for strategic communications, said the NPA has also set up a "rapid response" effort to counter negative media reports.
The main message to convey, he said, is that with an aging US population, an overburdened healthcare system, and concern about widespread obesity, supplements can play an important role in maintaining good nutrition - ensuring, for instance, that women over age 50 and prone to osteoporosis can get enough calcium.
"Part of this whole effort is to engage the national media as more and more attention is paid to this subject," Duffy said. "Journal of the American Medical Association studies always trigger follow-on stories by non-scientific journalists. So we want to make sure that whenever someone is making a claim not backed by science that the association is there."