Yahoo News teases readers with a headline, “Beware of ‘Fake’ Potassium Iodide: FDA,” apparently because they need a trip to the Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks. It’s either fake or not fake, Yahoo. If it’s “fake,” that means it’s real. Something said to be “fake” potassium iodide would be said to be fake, but be real. What they meant was “Beware of Fake ‘Potassium Iodide’: FDA.” It might be a generational thing; we X-ers are straight-up gangsta with the irony and the air quotes. We can’t possibly expect the rest of you to keep up.
All that would be fine if Yahoo’s article was about a fake iodine scam. However, what the Yahoo article presents is is the same confused public-health non-news we’ve been getting for days — Don’t take potassium iodide! If you do, you might get mild burning in your throat that will subside in 2-3 hours! Huh!?!?
The Yahoo story is a generalized smattering of trivia about potassium iodide. Yahoo’s sole excuse for a headline that has absolutely nothing to do with the warmed-over story, is a link to a CNN article on the the FDA’s warning about iodine scams.
The Yahoo story is essentially a retread of the many other news reports that caution against taking potassium iodide as prophylaxis because of potentially catastrophic side effects like upset stomach. Many of us already had upset stomachs by that point, because a fucking radiation cloud is headed for us, so the message sounded beyond disingenuous, sort of a “toxic sludge is good for you” brand of disinformation.
The health message of the media was so confused, ill-informed and dismissive of the public’s concerns that it managed to build Certain Doom out of an avalanche of reassuring facts: that there is no indication harmful radiation will reach the U.S., that radiation levels are being closely monitored, that there are many ways to measure the radiation that does reach the U.S. (which will almost surely be detectable) that come from independent sources not involving the federal government. It created the appearance of a conspiracy-of-disinformation where there was none. The “don’t panic!” message ended up sounding like it was alternately sobbed through teeth gritted in terror and slurred by PR-bots unsure of what they were saying.
The result was, of course, the Iodine Panic of 2011, and stores are sold out.
Once I get to the CNN story that Yahoo references, however, the beef I have is not with CNN or the newswriter, who did a bang-up job of covering the issue. The problem I have is with the FDA, which is up to its old tricks.
The story itself, reassuringly, is really what it claims to be. It’s about the FDA’s scam warning, which is awesome that CNN covered it but sketchy that the FDA has no concrete information whatever about specific scams around potassium iodide. What they do have is the same complaint the FDA has always had about the manufacturers of dietary supplements, whom the FDA doesn’t regulate and has never regulated. It’s not their job.
That’s why when you buy a dietary supplement that makes a specific health claim (“builds strong bones,” “helps regulate sleep,” “keeps you and your loved ones from dying of thyroid cancer caused by Japanese fallout”) the side of the bottle says (or should say): “This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” Such a statement is is required by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, when a product makes a specific claim that it affects the structure or function of the body. The FDA puts a lot of energy into CYAing about the fact that it doesn’t regulate supplements, but it also has shown time and time again a resentment against the supplement industry — with a few qualifications that I’ll go into at another time (like, for instance, megadose vitamins made by major pharmaceutical companies instead of natural-foods manufacturers).
The CNN story amounts to a “be aware” message similar to the FBI’s occasional vague warnings about wiring money to Nigeria. It’s not only maddeningly unspecific; it cites certain examples that aren’t really relevant and were happening last week and will be happening next week — because the supplement industry in this country has always been packed with weird shit consumers aren’t really sure how to use. This week it’s radiation; last week it was aging.
That’s pretty weak sauce when we’re promised a “scam.”
Without quoting specific cases, the FDA warning insinuates that a nefarious foreign-looking man with a pencil mustache might approach you while you’re waiting in line to see Mary Poppins, open his trench coat and display a tempting array of bottles marked pOTaSSiAm IooDyde, pReVENTs FAllOUT!!!!! “Only six hundred bucks, my friend. Sure, the government says you don’t need to take it — but do you trust the government? By the way, comrade — you look like you could use some bath salts…”
Don’t worry, though! The FDA says you should be aware of shady health products, which is portrayed by CNN as if it just occurred to them. The FDA says there may be scams out there, where products claim to be potassium iodide but aren’t — a claim that’s treated credulously, like all FDA claims, when the real warning is that all dietary supplements are sketchy because they “might” be something nasty.
Incidentally, health food stores, which may sell snake oil but don’t tend to sell poison, have always sold iodine products. A bottle costs $8, not even close to the amount of my federal taxes. Such supplements are made by the same people who make my Vitamin C, and I haven’t keeled over yet.
I haven’t really dug around to look at what ads are running next to the stories about the FDA warning at news sites like Yahoo.
When mainstream sites like Yahoo publish stories about the dangers of supplements legally sold in health food outlets across the nation…do they do it next to advertisements for the likes of “Restor-A-Trol!” and “Miracle Young!” and “Ginseng-O-Dine!”, which so often fill the pages of such mainstream sites — and the coffers of the companies that own them?