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Under Pressure, Pfizer Agrees To Change Vitamin Claims

Pfizer will drop or qualify some health claims on labels and in ads for Centrum vitamins and supplements.
Pfizer will drop or qualify some health claims on labels and in ads for Centrum vitamins and supplements.

If you pay any attention at all to ads for vitamins, you'd be forgiven for thinking they're good for just about anything that could ever ail you.

Marketers of vitamins and nutritional supplements have a lot of room to maneuver because the Food and Drug Administration doesn't vet their claims. Still, the companies have to substantiate what they say or risk running afoul of the Federal Trade Commission and state consumer protection laws.

Now Pfizer, which makes the Centrum line of vitamins and supplements, has agreed to drop some claims and modify others in response to a threatened lawsuit by a consumer group.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest alleged in a letter sent to Pfizer's CEO last year that the company was engaged in deceptive trade practices. CSPI said it would take legal action to stop the company and even try to get Pfizer to cough up profits from the affected products, if there were no changes.

Under an agreement between the drugmaker and CSPI, Pfizer won't make claims about "breast health" or "colon health" for Centrum products.

CSPI said those claims "implied that the supplements would prevent breast and colon cancer--disease prevention claims that supplement manufacturers can't legally make."

For those Centrum supplements that have touted benefits for "heart health," Pfizer will add a qualifier saying they're not a substitute for drugs that lower cholesterol. And for those that make an energy claim, Pfizer agreed to make clear that they products don't "directly provide energy or an energy 'boost.' " The products just "support energy" by helping a person's metabolism.

CSPI agreed not to sue, despite not getting everything it wanted. Pfizer, for instance, isn't agreeing to change claims it has been making about eye and bone health.

"A settlement is, by its nature, something where neither side gets all it wants," CSPI's Stephen Gardner said in a statement. "Once Pfizer agreed to drop the breast and colon cancer claims, we felt that that was too important to let things fall apart over eye and bone health." Also, Pfizer had better ground to stand on for its claims about bone and eye health, he said.

Pfizer, for its part, "disagrees with CSPI's concerns but has agreed to make these changes in order to fully resolve the issues raised by the organization," according to a statement emailed to Shots.

Ads and the websites for the products will change within 30 days. The Centrum packages will be changed no later than the first part of January next year.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.