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Dec. 2--The vitamin industry is trying to control the damage to its sales of vitamin E after research reported last month linked the supplement to early death.
People who take daily doses of 400 international units or higher are about 10 percent more likely to die prematurely than people who take smaller doses or no vitamin E supplements, researchers from Johns Hopkins University reported Nov. 10 at an American Heart Association conference in New Orleans.
About a quarter of the U.S. population takes vitamin E supplements, according to industry estimates.
This week, the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a dietary supplement trade association, ran ads in major newspapers to counter the study's findings.
"Numerous clinical studies support vitamin E's role in cardiovascular health, immune function and antioxidant protection," the ads said.
They also said the study that found health risks from vitamin E was flawed because it looked primarily at an elderly population with pre-existing health problems.
Nevertheless, vitamin retailers have said their vitamin E business is damaged.
"The study has had a negative impact on vitamin E sales across the industry, which we believe is very unfortunate given the multiple potential benefits of vitamin E," said Patrick Fitzgerald, spokesman for General Nutrition Centers, a national retailer of nutritional supplements.
He mentioned reduced risk of cancer and age-related vision loss as examples.
"It's just not scientifically valid, but it's certainly going to hurt sales," Harvey Kamil, president of nutritional supplement company NBTY Inc. said about the Johns Hopkins study.
Customers at vitamin stores in the Washington area have been expressing concern about the supplement, according to sales personnel.
A clerk at a Vitamin Shoppe store in Gaithersburg, who asked that her name be withheld, said sales of vitamin E were "not very good because of the report that came out."
Jason Kam, vice president of business development for Purity Products, a nutritional supplement maker, said the Johns Hopkins study alone was not enough to override previous research that showed benefits from vitamin E.
"If more studies should emerge that reinforce the findings of the Hopkins study, then people will, in my opinion, have no choice but to more carefully decide whether or not they should supplement their diet with it," Mr. Kam said.
The Johns Hopkins researchers acknowledged they were uncertain why high doses of vitamin E might be linked to premature death.
Their study was based on an analysis of 19 previous studies between 1993 and 2004. They involved more than 136,000 mostly elderly people in North America, Europe and China.
"If people are taking a multivitamin, they should make sure it contains no more than a low dose of vitamin E," said Johns Hopkins' Dr. Edgar Miller, the study's lead researcher.
The vitamin is found naturally in nuts, oils, whole grains and green leafy vegetables.
The average U.S. diet supplies six to 10 international units of vitamin E, Dr. Miller said. An international unit is a standard measurement of biological agents set by the scientific community. The Institute of Medicine, which determines recommended doses of vitamins and minerals, says 1,500 international units of vitamin E should be the daily upper limit.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is prohibited by law from regulating dietary supplements so the limits are voluntary.
Dr. Miller said that while vitamin E in low doses is a good antioxidant, in higher doses it might promote oxidative damage. Another potential explanation for the increased health risks might be that vitamin E overwhelms the body's natural antioxidants, he said.
John Hathcock, the Council for Responsible Nutrition's vice president of scientific affairs, criticized the report, saying "This is an unfortunate misdirection of science in an attempt to make something out of nothing for the sake of headlines."
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