Rocky Mountain High

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  • 04/28/2015

Did Dr. Tim Byers (University of Colorado Cancer Center) present (at the April meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research) “new evidence” that some people get more cancer while on vitamins? On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like a tough question.

At a session entitled “Dietary Supplements and Cancer Risk and Prognosis” Dr. Byers presented information from his 2012 commentary in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Dietary Supplements and Cancer Prevention: Balancing Potential Benefits Against Proven Harms (May 2012). It’s an interesting and important read – but is it new?

Well, it seems that question depends on who you ask. According to CBS News, “new research finds…” and according to a leading British newspaper, the Daily Mail, “a new study has found …”

The media’s interest in Dr. Byers’ research came about via a standard (and accurate)  university press release. How does the University PR representative feel about the success of the story?

Garth Sundem (University of Colorado media relations department) said he was surprised to see that his news release was “immediately and aggressively sensationalized” by the media, and described a “ripple effect, almost like a game of telephone tag, where news outlets, especially in the UK, seemed to give increasingly more sensational accounts of the study without ever going back to the original source.” He described Byers as being “just as horrified as you’d expect any academic researcher would be.”

Does this mean that the 2012 article is irrelevant? Certainly not, but in light of the recent news coverage over GNC’s manufacturing irregularities, the on-going debate over regulating dietary supplements as food, and marketing abuses (particularly online) of structure/function claims, it’s not surprising that the Fourth Estate jumped all over Dr. Byers’ findings branding them as “new” to enhance media value.

But that doesn’t make it so.

Sticking to the facts is what news organizations are supposed to do – making the facts more than they are isn’t journalism – it’s hype. And that serves neither the public nor the public health.

Most dangerous outcome here is that the media hype leads people to stop taking important vitamin supplements.

Facts do not need to be … supplemented.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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