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Herbals See Little Net Regulation

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Americans turning to the Net to learn about herbal supplements might be getting misleading and unproven information, a study reports today.

Doctors analyzed 443 popular Web sites involving the eight most widely used herbal products. Of those, 273 sites made health claims. And of those, 149, or 55%, ''claimed to treat, prevent, diagnose or cure specific diseases.''

Dietary supplements can go on the market without proof of safety and effectiveness. They are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration after they are on the market, when they must be able to substantiate any claims being made. Regulations prevent manufacturers from making claims that dietary supplements treat specific diseases and medical conditions.

''Important clinical information was often omitted,'' says the study by Charles Morris and Jerry Avorn at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston in today's Journal of the American Medical Association.

For instance, 39% of the 62 kava retail sites didn't mention an FDA advisory linking the herb to liver toxicity, according to the article.

The article comes as the Internet is becoming an increasingly popular place to find health information. A Pew Internet & American Life Project in July concluded that 80% of U.S. adults online use the Internet to find health information, and 28% of all adult Internet users are specifically looking for information about alternative treatments.

''As the number of people who are using the Internet grows, it's a major concern if people are using it as a way to educate themselves about products that are going unregulated,'' Morris says.

The study calls for the government to step up its regulation of dietary supplements.

''Right now this industry is poorly regulated by federal groups that can only police the Internet after the fact,'' Morris says. ''We think that there should be, like prescription drugs, mandatory submission of evidence that supports efficacy and safety.''

Herbal supplement companies do need to be careful to follow regulations, says Annette Dickinson, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a dietary supplement trade group.

But she adds that current regulations are adequate. ''There are permissible claims that can be made as health claims . . . and about how a product affects the structure and function of the body.''

The JAMA article, she adds, ''is reflecting a legitimate concern among doctors about the information their patients are getting.''

She and others advise patients to thoroughly examine information they get on the Internet and to consult a doctor.

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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