Hard News by Russell Brown

Supplementary questions

Much of the opposition to the new trans-Tasman regime on dietary supplements has been, frankly, quite self-serving - and it has come from people not normally noted for their sympathy towards businesses struggling with regulatory burden.

But it's hard for Annette King to hold any kind of high ground after this week trumping a select committee report that found unanimously - Labour members included - that we shouldn't sign up to the Australian regulatory regime. It was shabby and expedient and it has given tons of fuel to panicky conspiracy theories like this one.

Our regulatory system for vitamins, minerals and the various non-prescription remedies that can be sold from any old shop is clearly in need of repair. The question is whether the Australian system is the best way to handle that repair.

In making the case for better scrutiny of exactly what can be safely sold, King noted two cases of liver toxicity resulting in death in men who had taken K4, a supplement containing 25-30 herbs that is sold as a cure for prostate cancer. K4 is among products mentioned in the FAQ for the Joint Therapeutic Products Agency on the Ministry of Health website.

Nonsense, said supplement industry lobbyist Ron Law in a Herald column in reply:

Contrary to her assertion, there has not been a single death in New Zealand resulting from dietary supplements. After an extensive inquiry, a coroner found that K4 was not the cause of death of a Hamilton man in his 80s; he had terminal prostate cancer.

The second person referred to by Ms King was also an old man suffering from terminal prostate cancer who died in Australia while visiting family and friends. Again, there is no evidence that he died as a result of taking K4.

Hundreds of millions of bottles of K4 have been sold around the world without problems. That Medsafe says something is dangerous does not mean it is dangerous.

This is deceitful in the extreme, I'm afraid. No, it cannot be conclusively shown that the two men in question died as a result of liver failure that was induced by K4. But, as this World Health Organisation bulletin on the New Zealand experience indicates, there was quite good evidence that the herbal remedy did, in 13 cases, cause liver damage to those who took it:

In several cases, patients felt well but liver function tests were consistent with acute hepatitis. In most cases, the hepatitis resolved gradually on withdrawal of K4. Both patients who died presented with acute hepatitis which progressed to massive hepatic necrosis confirmed by liver biopsy. Screening for possible infectious causes, such as infectious hepatitis, was negative.

It might also be noted that K4 didn't appear to do anything for their prostate cancer either. Quite frankly, Mr Law, I'm not really keen to have someone who glosses over that kind of detail running around claiming to have my health and welfare uppermost in mind. (It's tempting to wonder what might have been the reaction had, say, GM corn been associated with acute liver damage in 13 people, but presumably that would be different ...)

I can see I'm going to have to form an opinion here but for now, I don't think I fancy either side of this particular argument. I'll get back to you …

Iraq's looking weirder and weirder: Jim Henley at Unqualified Offerings has been trying to untangle the curious collision of factoids around the Samarra ambush and comes up with four possible conclusions. He also amusingly dismembers the Daily Telegraph exclusive on the Iraqi army officer who claims to have been the source of the infamous "45-minute" weapons claim.

Salam is back posting and bickering with Raed. He has a bit more on the national census plan mysteriously withdrawn on American instructions. Was it scotched because it might have opened the way for full general elections rather than the US plan for "indirect democracy"? Who knows? Riverbend has some comment too.

And it looks like the angry drunk behaviour is back, with the Pentagon's declaration that only countries which supported the war in Iraq will be eligible to bid for reconstruction contracts. Well, it's their money - or, rather, their yawning chasm of a fiscal deficit - so you might say it's their call. But it can hardly be argued to be in Iraq's interests to limit the field in such a way, and it already appears to have scotched the kind of co-operation on Iraqi reconstruction that the Americans desperately need. Petulant, and not very smart …