Professors and students support California bill prohibiting the sale of diet pills to adolescents

Aug. 15, 2022, 9:43 p.m.

A California bill banning the sale of weight loss supplements and over-the-counter diet pills to customers under the age of 18 is one step away from passing in the California State Senate after being approved by the Senate Appropriations committee. Passage of California’s Assembly Bill 1341, health policy experts and student advocates said, is a long overdue step toward rectify the lack of regulations on weight loss supplements in the diet industry.

The bill, which passed the Senate Health Committee unanimously in early June, would introduce a fine of up to $1000 per infraction for retailers violating its terms. Previously, the bill’s biggest obstacle came from corporate campaigns in the supplement industry. But several companies previously in opposition, including the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, American Herbal Products Association and California Retailers Association, went neutral after recent amendments, which removed requirements to place weight loss supplements behind the counter or in a locked case. 

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly cautions young people against using diet pills for weight loss, a survey published in the “Journal of Adolescent Health” found that 11% of teens have used some form of weight loss supplement in their lifetime, which can result in severe health damages such as heart attacks, strokes, liver failure or even death. 

Bryn Austin, a social and behavioral sciences professor at Harvard University, said that companies that sell weight loss supplements prey on vulnerable consumers like adolescents for profit. Every year, dietary supplements send around 23,000 Americans to an emergency room, and a quarter of these cases are caused by weight loss supplements. 

“Dietary supplements sold with false promises to promote weight loss are not only ineffective, they can be downright dangerous,” Austin said. “Assembly Bill 1341 gives California lawmakers the chance to take meaningful action to protect children in the state from these harmful products.”

Sarina Deb ’23, president of Students Against Eating Disorders, also cautioned adolescents against relying on weight loss products that claim to guarantee quick changes to their physical appearance. As a survivor of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, Deb said she is grateful her parents prevented her from purchasing diet pills.  

“Diet pills are often gateway drugs to, and behaviors of, eating disorders,” Deb said. “We need to do what we can to protect kids from falling into the trap of engaging in the consumption of these non-scientific, psychologically harmful pills.” Deb was previously an editor at The Daily.

According to Austin, weight loss products are easily accessible in stores and online venues, despite the lack of scientific evidence regarding their health implications. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, passed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, did not require dietary supplement companies to undergo pre-screening by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before selling to consumers. As a result, the FDA recalls weight loss supplements containing toxic ingredients only after a reported incident. 

Pediatrics professor Neville Golden said most weight loss supplements work by suppressing the consumer’s appetite or by making them feel full for a longer period of time. While they may help with short-term weight loss, many products have “potentially dangerous side effects such as elevated heart rate, high blood pressure and increased nervousness,” Golden said. 

For long term weight loss, Golden said most physicians would instead recommend lifestyle modifications consisting of making healthy food choices and engaging in daily physical activity. “Diet pills do not lead to weight loss that can be sustained,” he said. 

The mental and physical consequences often far outweigh the potential benefits. A study published in the “American Journal of Public Health” revealed that adolescents who use weight-loss supplements or over-the-counter diet pills are four to six times more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder within the next three years. 

Eating disorder rates surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, with hospitals around the United States seeing two times as many patients seeking treatment for an eating disorder. 

“Anorexia took away my personality, happiness and relationships,” Deb said. According to her, prohibiting minors from purchasing over-the-counter diet pills without a prescription is “a step in the right direction” to address some of the harms of unattainable standards created by the diet industry. 

The California State Senate will vote on the bill on Monday, Aug. 22. Until then, Deb and many others can only wait and “hope legislators will do the right thing.”

This article has been updated to reflect when Assembly Bill 1341 will be voted on in the California State Senate. The vote was previously scheduled for an earlier date.

Chuying Huo is a high school reporter in The Stanford Daily Winter Journalism Workshop.

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