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Vitamin users in last-ditch bid to stop ban on supplements
By Geoffrey Lean and Steve Bloomfield
23 January 2005
Consumers and producers of popular vitamin and mineral supplements used by thousands every day will this week make a last-ditch attempt to prevent a European Union directive from banning them.
Campaigners claim products from well-known brands including Holland and Barrett, Solgar and Viridian will be removed from the shelves unless they are reformulated.
The campaign against the directive has enlisted the help of a number of high-profile supporters, including Cherie Blair's former lifestyle adviser Carole Caplin and the actress Jenny Seagrove. Dame Judi Dench and Bianca Jagger are also backing the campaign.
A third of women and a quarter of men take health food supplements in the UK and the market is thought to be worth at least ยฃ350m a year.
The EU directive lists only 28 vitamins and minerals, and 112 sources from which they were derived for use in food supplements, which can be sold legally after it comes into force on 1 August. It would threaten up to 5,000 products, containing more than 200 nutrients, which campaigners claim have been used safely in specialist supplements for many years.
Some large chains, such as Boots, have already reformulated their products to meet the new EU rules and say their customers will see no difference when the directive comes into force. Also, manufacturers who submit detailed scientific dossiers by July this year that prove their ingredients are safe will still be allowed to sell their products.
Campaigners say the cost on suppliers could force smaller firms into bankruptcy. Few of the small health food companies can manage the expense - up to ยฃ250,000 for each ingredient - and only a handful of safety dossiers are being prepared.
Consumers for Health Choice, who have been leading the campaign against the directive, said that products under threat include Solgar Prenatal Nutrients, which contain nutrient sources not on the EU's list, and Holland and Barrett's ABC Plus, which has a high dose of vitamin C.
A court case brought by the National Association of Health Stores and the British Health Foods Manufacturers Association will argue on Tuesday that Brussels is exceeding its powers by imposing a blanket ban. It is being contested by the EU's institutions and by the governments of Greece and Portugal as well as Britain.
On the same day, the Conservatives, who say the measure will outlaw virtually every popular multi-vitamin pill sold in the country, will call in the Commons for the ban to be scrapped.
Ministers are concerned that growing public opposition to the ban will affect the referendum on the European Constitution, due after the general election.
Peter Hain, the Leader of the House of Commons, has called it "unnecessary interference" by Brussels, and other ministers have privately expressed sympathy with the protesters. But the Government is still pressing ahead with the ban, and will defend it in the European Court case.
Some reports suggest that some products could cause problems in high doses, but a major body of research demonstrates that deficiencies in minerals and vitamins, levels of which are falling in modern diets, can cause heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer and other conditions.
A recent study published by the American Medical Association shows that taking some mineral and vitamin pills reduces the risk of contracting cancer and cardiovascular disease, and protects foetuses.
The ban, the first of a series of EU measures designed to outlaw a range of alternative medicines, is contained in the Food Supplements Directive, passed in 2002 to harmonise the trade in supplements between EU member states and after lobbying from the pharmaceutical industry.
Sue Croft, a spokeswoman for Consumers for Health Choice, said: "If this directive comes into force it will affect the lives of millions. To have these supplements removed and to put more strain on the NHS is nothing short of a crime. At the election we will be targeting those MPs who do not vote to stop this."
A spokeswoman for Boots, however, which has a third of the vitamin supplement market, said the company had been gradually reducing the level of vitamins and minerals in own-brand supplements in line with new safety levels.
"Consumers won't see a huge change," a spokeswoman said. "We fully support this EU directive."