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Indicators: Vitamins- Food or Drugs?

 A few years ago, the UN created the Codex Alimentarious Commission in an attempt to develop one international standard for food and drug regulations. Now that different nations have offered concrete proposals, consumer groups are worried about the effects such proposals may have on the alternative health industry and the small companies marketing dietary supplements. Much of the argument hinges on terminology: Some countries, such as the US, Sweden, and the UK, classify herbal and dietary supplements as "food," whereas other nations, including Germany and France, classify them as "drugs."

The distinction is significant, because if international standards are resolved so that vitamins and herbal remedies are considered drugs, anything over a very minimal dose would require a doctor's prescription. Consumer advocates warn that this would allow large pharmaceutical companies to raise prices considerably.

The bigger fear is that if new over-the-counter categories are adopted for herbs or vitamins, larger domestic companies could afford the label licensing - which lends vital legitimacy to the product - while smaller companies could not, effectively squeezing them out.

Under this scenario, the larger domestic companies would soon lose this recently won market share to the even larger multinationals. This is because the new international regulations would give multinationals - who have extensive experience meeting the stricter German regulations - a competitive advantage, allowing them to move in and dominate local markets with relative ease.

Codex critics also fear that centralizing control of these supplements will reduce consumer choice and could severely restrict alternative therapies that rely on using herbal supplements - treatments that western medicine does not recognize.

Although it once seemed likely that the Codex would adopt the German delegation's proposal for a stricter, "drug" classification for supplements, opposition is mounting.

Consumer advocates in the US managed to get herbal and dietary supplements exempted from the recent FDA Reform Bill, which otherwise called for simply adopting European Union standards. At the UN, the German Codex proposal has been delayed, and several European national legislatures are now re-examining their own positions at the negotiating table.
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