AHCJ award-winner’s work foretold N.Y. moratorium on certain supplements

Kris Hickman

About Kris Hickman

Kris Hickman (@the_index_case) is a graduate research assistant for AHCJ, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in journalism, from the University of Missouri. She spent two years in Zambia as an HIV/AIDS community education volunteer in the Peace Corps. She aspires to be an epidemiologist and science writer.

Image by  Health Gauge via flickr.

Image by Health Gauge via flickr.

AHCJ members likely weren’t too surprised on Feb. 3, when the New York Office of the Attorney General ordered four major companies to stop selling certain herbal supplements, because in 2013, USA Today reporter Alison Young won an Award for Excellence in Health Care Journalism for investigating the lucrative and shadowy world of dietary supplements.

Research in New York showed many products did not contain any of the advertised ingredients, and in the series “Supplement Shell Game,” Young showed that some drugs – and their makers – can be downright dangerous. Even worse, industry players often clash with regulators, and many have criminal backgrounds.

In one installment, Young profiled supplement creator Matt Cahill. Cahill faced charges for selling a weight-loss drug containing DNP, a pesticide so dangerous that in 1938, the FDA declared it unfit for any kind of human consumption. In 2002, Connecticut teenager Leta Hole died after attempting suicide by taking about a dozen of Cahill’s diet pills, which were not labeled with dosage instructions or an explanation of DNP.

Cahill struck a plea-bargain to avoid jail time – and later set up another company to manufacture Craze, his new steroid. Craze took off among weightlifters, and bodybuilder Rob Riches blamed a 2013 failed drug test on the possibility of hidden ingredients in the popular workout booster. Soon after, Harvard researchers tested Craze and found an amphetamine-like stimulant not listed on the label.

Young went on to find myriad risks in her four-part series on supplements and the people who sell them. In “Makers of tainted supplements have criminal pasts,” Young wrote, “The problem of supplement adulteration is significant, whether it occurs with criminal intent or is the result of lax quality control and insufficient oversight of suppliers.”

The series motivated policy makers and corporations to tighten regulations and stop selling shoddy supplements. Learn more about Young’s award-winning work here.

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