For James J. Gormley’s September article on Washington and the natural products industry, he interviewed Gretchen DuBeau, Esq., Executive and Legal Director, Alliance for Natural Health, Atlanta, GA, Mike Greene, Vice President of Government Relations, Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), Washington D.C., Mark A. LeDoux, Chairman and CEO, Natural Alternatives International, Carlsbad, CA, Neil E. Levin, CCN, DANLA, NOW Foods Nutrition Education Manager, Bloomingdale, IL and Scott C. Tips, J.D., President, National Health Federation, Monrovia, CA. Below are their thoughts effects of petition drives and lobby days.
NIE: How are the various “lobby day” events being received by legislators? Last year and this year, what are the key issues that are being communicated to U.S. legislators?
Levin: “Our industry has several lobby days, which might have more impact if they are combined, as are our Dietary Supplement Caucus events. For our lobby days this year, besides communicating the adequacy of our current regulation and general safety of our products we also lobbied for pre-tax purchases of vitamins and minerals, and for the purchase of supplements as part of the SNAP program.”
Greene: “CRN’s Day on the Hill grows every year, and the industry executives who have attended have been instrumental in passing the Designer Anabolic Steroid Control Act into law; stopping negative dietary supplement amendments from being added to the National Defense Authorization Act, and making the case for why FDA’s Division of Dietary Supplement Programs needed to be elevated to an Office to appropriately deal with dietary supplement regulation. Above all, participants have fun engaging in their civic duty, discussing health and wellness policy in meetings, and educating members of Congress and staff about the importance of dietary supplements to our consumers (their constituents). This year, there were 65 CRN members attending, we met with 60 congressional offices, 15 members of Congress addressed our group, and we honored key staff working for Sens. Hatch and Heinrich, who have done so much for the dietary supplement industry. The events are well received and messages are being communicated. Major lobbying efforts, like CRN’s Day on the Hill, will continue to grow in popularity because we listen to Congress and we get things done.”
DuBeau: Supplements are not drugs. Full stop. Time and time again, politicians like Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and the Food and Drug Administration have attempted to impose a drug-approval-like paradigm on dietary supplements, which would severely restrict consumer access to these safe and natural products. The new NDI guidance is an extension of this erroneous thinking. Here’s why. Drugs can afford to go through a pre-market approval process because, at the end, they are patent-protected and drug companies make a fortune selling them. Vitmain C cannot be patented, so no company can pay to take it through a pre-approval process. We hear a lot of talk about the dangers of supplements, but the truth of the matter is that, according to the latest available data, no one died from taking a supplement in 2013. Congress must understand that supplements are overwhelmingly safe—you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than die from taking a supplement. This should tell us that the current regulatory framework is working just fine, and when it doesn’t it’s likely that the FDA is simply not enforcing the rules on the books.
LeDoux: The oxygen of politics is generated by interfacing between electorate and elected officials. If the message is clear and concise, and the messengers are properly trained in etiquette of dealing with legislative staff and members of the House and Senate, these events can be extremely effective. If the oxygen is to combust, we also need a source of flame, and in this case, we need much more activity from a financial perspective with the Political Action Committees in our space. The amount of political contributions this industry spends is embarrassingly low. Key issues of the past year have been NDI guidance, GMO pre-emption requests, Puerto Rico Administrative Orders without justification, WIC funding for supplements and healthy foods, Food Stamp benefit concerns for supplements, FTC (Federal Trade Commission) issues, FDA funding concerns, Establishment of Dietary Supplement Office within CFSAN (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition) and about a dozen other issues of interest at the state and local level.
NIE: Online petition drives are very popular with trade and consumer groups—what are the upsides and downsides of 100, 1,000 or 10,000 signatures to an online letter or petition targeting Congress? Aside from (or including) in-person meetings in D.C. or local district offices, what are the most effective ways to advocate for legislative and/or regulatory matters?
Levin: Online petitions can be very effective, but need to target things that are relevant and timely to the lawmakers. For example, besieging them over an issue that isn’t on their desks (or about to be) is unlikely to generate results and has the potential to alienate both them and their staffers. In many cases, we should follow the lead of our lobbyists and congressional champions as to how and when to apply smart pressure. This also helps to avoid constantly soliciting public action at times when it’s not needed. Too often organizations gin up controversies to position themselves as public champions and generate memberships and income even at times when such efforts are not really productive. This risks burning out allies and grassroots supporters. Public action can be powerful, but only if used as directed.
Greene: Well-meaning and interested consumers reaching out to elected officials and to the agencies, is still the most effective way to raise legislative and regulatory concerns. I believe that any way we can encourage consumers to become more involved in petitioning Congress for the redress of grievance is useful and relevant. It’s the American way. But I also believe the dietary supplement industry needs to be more careful. We mustn’t disagree with everything, but instead be more strategic about when we engage grassroots efforts, online letters and petitions. While the dietary supplement industry was extraordinarily successful in utilizing its grassroots base to help support and ultimately pass DSHEA (22 years ago), the methods used to exchange information and how constituents interact with government has changed over the years. We should be looking more at social media and novel grassroots engines that share authentic and accurate information with Congress and the government. Our consumers are loyal, and care about their natural products and dietary supplements. The trade associations should work more closely with consumer groups to share information and ensure that we regularly prime the grassroots engines, while being more strategic about when we pull the trigger.
LeDoux: Politics, particularly at the national level, is a numbers game. Who has the most voters? Who raises the most money in their election cycle, who has the greatest following on Twitter or Facebook. If a member of Congress receives 10,000 emails or phone calls on a subject matter, that is sure to get the staff to stand up and take notice. If 10 calls or e-mails come in, not so much. The benefit of our industry participation is that we have almost 70 percent of the country taking supplements and a significant number purchasing and actively using natural products, so that represents a significant number of voters.
Tips: The downside to such drives is that, not always but often enough, a lot of activist time, energy, and money is wasted on a useless effort. Witness the utter joke of the online petition drive to Obama to urge him to veto the DARK Act when it was obvious that he would sign that Act into law. The upside, at least to commercial enterprises, is that they then get to capture thousands of new names and e-mail addresses that they can then commercially exploit through high-tech spamming programs. I think it’s an ugly tradeoff.