By: Jennifer Grebow (Nutritional Outlook)
Consumer interest in dietary supplements is high as the public seeks proactive ways to stay as healthy as possible during a pandemic. But not everyone can afford or obtain supplements.

At a February 18 webcast titled “A New Congress and New Administration,” hosted by the Natural Products Association (NPA; Washington, DC), NPA leaders stressed that making dietary supplements more affordable and accessible to more people must remain a critical priority for the industry. It is all the more important in the face of ongoing emerging legislation, particularly at the state level, to restrict consumer access to supplements.

This has been an ongoing topic within the industry. For years, NPA, as well as other industry groups, have lobbied lawmakers to allow dietary supplement purchases to be covered under health savings accounts (HSAs), flexible spending accounts (FSAs), and health reimbursement accounts (HRAs). Bills have been introduced through the years. Most recently, in early February during the Senate budget reconciliation process, Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Tim Scott (R-SC) introduced Amendment 253, which would make dietary supplements eligible under HSA and FSA programs. Last July, Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) introduced similar legislation.

The dietary supplement industry naturally supports these efforts. Kyle Turk, NPA’s director of government affairs, highlighted NPA’s ongoing work with lawmakers such as Senator Lee on these initiatives, as well as those targeting government programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

“Moving forward, this is a great opportunity to put more folks on the record and continue messaging that there is bipartisan support for modernizing a program that already exists by expanding access to vitamins through these programs,” said Turk during the webcast.

Supplements are an increasing part of the preventive-health landscape. When introducing the recent amendment, Senator Lee said his goal is to “[allow] for more preventative and health maintenance expenses to be covered.”

It’s in line with what consumers want: the ability to make the choice to support their health using dietary supplements. “People really are trying to stay healthy,” said Daniel Fabricant, PhD, NPA’s president and CEO, during the webcast. “You’re going to continue to see great growth in the sector. People are interested in vitamin D, zinc, immune products—and not just those. As gyms start to reopen, sports nutrition is coming back. And we’ll continue to see growth. I think everyone is really bullish. I think the other driver is people are really very interested in self-care right now…Folks are looking up things on their own and taking matters into their own hands and seeing what works.”

The interest in vitamin D is especially keen following several retrospective and observational studies linking low vitamin D status with poor COVID-19 outcomes. The news is on at least one lawmaker’s radar. In February, U.S. Representative Glenn Grothman (R-WI) introduced a House Resolution “to recognize the significant role vitamin D may play in the fight against COVID-19,” his website states. “If passed,” Grothman stated in a press release, “my resolution will unite the voice of the House of Representatives in the search for additional ways to limit the negative effects of COVID-19 and hopefully encourage our public health establishment to issue much-needed guidance as to truly how effective vitamin D can be in preventing serious symptoms, complications, or death from coronavirus.”

If the goal is to encourage healthcare instead of sickcare, it’s beyond time that dietary supplements were part of these public programs. After all, Fabricant pointed out, under the COVID-19 CARES Act last year, menstrual hygiene products are now eligible under FSAs and HSAs. CARES also restored coverage of certain over-the-counter OTC) drugs. Said Fabricant: “OTCs weren’t covered; they are now covered under HSAs. Feminine hygiene products weren’t covered; they’re now covered. So the next logical extension we feel is dietary supplements.”

Protecting consumer access to supplements is especially important as state lawmakers continue to roll out legislation to restrict some consumers from purchasing supplements.

Turk pointed to the February re-introduction in Massachusetts of a bill titled “Protecting Children from Diet Pills and Muscle-Building Supplements” (H.D. 1309 and S.D. 678), which would prevent consumers under age 18 from purchasing such supplements. The bill’s sponsors claimed that the use of such supplements is linked to eating disorders; however, according to NPA, based on a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request the association filed, no such link was found. Even more recently, on February 17 in Massachusetts, Representative James Murphy (D-MA) introduced a bill that would prohibit the sale of energy drinks to consumers under age 18.

These are just the latest state bills to target energy drinks and weight-loss supplements; there have been others. During the webcast, Turk highlighted states where legislation to restrict consumer access to supplements and/or energy drinks has been especially active: Massachusetts, New York, California, and Illinois, as well as Connecticut and South Carolina. “Unfortunately,” he said, “these are states where, should these bills pass, they become a model for what other states can look towards to not only introduce but also put up for consideration.”

Paying attention to these restrictive efforts at the state level is very important, he added. “[States] move way quicker at introducing and passing legislation than the federal government does.”

To encourage actions the industry does want (increased coverage of supplements within government programs) and does not want (further efforts to restrict consumer access), members of the supplements industry have to take an active role in educating lawmakers about the health benefits—and public cost savings—of supplements. And that starts with reaching out to them.

Webcast speaker Stacey Rampy, co-founder of government affairs firm Rampy Northrup (Washington, DC), pointed out: “There are 67 new members of Congress, which means we have 67 new opportunities to tell our story.” It’s a call to action that leaders like NPA and others hope industry takes seriously, especially as threats to consumer access to supplements will likely only continue.