Leading article: An unhealthy intervention

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The Independent Online

The efforts of health food campaigners and practitioners of alternative medicine to strike down a new European directive on their sector appear to have failed. The European Court of Justice ruled yesterday that the new EU directive on food supplements and vitamins is reasonable. This could mark the end of the long struggle of campaigners to fend off the advancing hand of European regulation.

The case for tighter regulation is superficially convincing. It will ensure clear labelling on products in health food shops, which will benefit consumers. And retailers have been offered an assurance that if any product is banned, there will be ample opportunity to appeal against the decision.

There are also health and safety benefits. A study a few years ago by UK doctors found that pregnant women who take extra zinc, for example, could be impairing the early development of their child. And the British Dietetic Association has argued that some patients have been admitted to hospital suffering liver failure and severe stomach problems after taking high doses of vitamins. It would therefore seem to make sense that any food supplements marketed within the EU should be checked for safety before they go on sale. This is the rationale behind the "safe list" of health foods that the directive will establish next month.

Some might also feel it is a good thing in itself that the health food and alternative medicine sector is being brought under greater regulatory control. There is a perception, particularly in medical circles, that health food retailers prey on the gullible and superstitious since their products have no proven health properties whatsoever. In other words, they feel the entire industry is a huge con trick and that it deserves to be harassed.

But strangling an industry through regulation is unfair. The fact is that people have a right to spend their money however they want - even on "natural" remedies, vitamin supplements and mineral plant extracts. The concerns about safety are legitimate. National governments are right to ban harmful concoctions through an EU-wide directive. But it should not be incumbent on every provincial health food retailer to apply for permission whenever they wish to market a new, perfectly harmless, product. The cost of complying will run many small firms out of business. This approach is too heavy handed.

The boom in alternative medicines and food supplements is one of the most bizarre trends of our times, and it is certainly not one that we would seek to endorse from a medical point of view. But equally, we cannot endorse the punitive regulation of a sector that - in the vast majority of cases - does no harm to anyone.