Research suggesting that teenagers who use herbal products are more likely to go on to use drugs such as cigarettes, alcohol and narcotics has met with an angry response from the herbal products industry.
Dr Susan Yussman, the lead author of the report, said that she had been inundated with phone calls and emails since she had presented her findings at the annual meeting of the Society for Adolescent Medicine in the US earlier this week.
"The phone has not stopped ringing," she said. "The research has generated a lot of interest, mostly from the herbal supplement industry defending their products."
She told NutraIngredients.com: "I think the most important thing to remember is that this was cross-sectional, not longitudinal, data from only 2006 high school students in Monroe County, NY in 1999. Therefore, one cannot make any direct causative or correlational assumptions, nor can one generalise to the general teen population in the US, or anywhere, for that matter.
"The only question regarding herbal products asked in the Monroe County Youth Risk Behavior Survey was: 'In your lifetime, how many times have you taken herbal or other natural products, either to make you feel better, or to help you perform better at sports or school?' Our study is limited in that we have no information on which products these teens took. Therefore, we are in the process of collecting our own data on a random sample of adolescents across the US in much more detail to see if these results hold true."
Dr Yussman's research showed that children who used a herbal product were almost six times as likely to use cocaine, almost seven times as likely to use methamphetamine, almost nine times as likely to use heroin, and about eight items as likely to use other illegal drugs.
"Herbal product use is common, and is strongly associated with illicit drug use among high school students. Health care providers should inquire about adolescents' herbal product use, and disclosure should prompt an in-depth substance abuse history," she concluded."This research is pretty misleading," Nicholas Friedman of the Advanced Natural Health Center told NutraIngredients.com. "First of all what herbs are we talking about? Secondly, what are they using the herbs for? Thirdly how are they taking them?"
"Herbs have been around a lot longer than pharmaceutical medicines and herbs are still used today for many different health care problems. The individuals using them range from infants all the way to the elderly. Do we need to be taking prescription medications for everything, including shyness? Herbs are much safer than pharmaceutical drugs."
Whether that final statement is correct is an entirely separate debate, of course, but it will certainly be interesting to see if Dr Yussman's additional research shows any more concrete links. Even then, the herbal products industry is unlikely to be convinced, since the excessive consumption of one particular product by an individual is hardly likely to be an indictment of the whole industry. Nonetheless, we will await the new data with interest.