The Impact of Warnings, Disclaimers, and Product Experience on Consumers' Perceptions of Dietary Supplements

Article excerpt

Two experiments explored the impact of disclosures (warning and disclaimer) and product experience (heavy, light, and nonusers) on consumers' perceptions of dietary supplements. In general, the government-mandated disclaimer did not impact consumers' beliefs about either the efficacy or the safety of dietary supplements; for most consumers, the disclaimer is unlikely to achieve its intended results. However, when product experience was examined, analyses show that heavy product users responded differently to the disclosures than did light product users and nonusers. Results point to the importance of understanding the influence of individual differences on the interpretation of product disclosures by specific consumer segments.

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Information interventions have long been an important policy tool for enhancing consumers' ability to navigate effectively in the marketplace. The availability of relevant, accurate information is thought to assist consumers in making meaningful decisions about product and brand use. Frequently important product information is mandated for inclusion on product labels and in advertising. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA 1994) established new standards for information disclosure on dietary supplement labels. These standards were adopted in part to stimulate the availability of health-related products and to encourage the flow of information in the marketplace.

DSHEA's standards exemplify policymakers' attempts to balance the rights of sellers to make accurate and truthful claims about their products and the rights of consumers to have access to complete and nondeceptive information. The standards made fairly subtle distinctions among different types of product claims (health or disease claims, nutrition content claims, and structure-function claims) and introduced the requirement for a disclaimer previously unfamiliar to consumers. The wording of the disclaimer, mandated when a structure-function claim is made, is prescribed by DSHEA and states:

   This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is
   not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

This mandated disclaimer is intended to inform consumers that the regulatory review environment for structure-function claims for dietary supplements is different than what consumers are accustomed to for foods or drugs and for other types of claims. DSHEA also distinguished dietary supplements from drugs and exempted dietary supplements from Food and Drug Administration (FDA) premarket approval or safety testing requirements (Mason 1998). Without such requirements, specific hazards associated with use may not be known until extensive consumer use demonstrates adverse effects. Some specific products and/or brands do carry warnings associated with known hazards, but the presence of such warnings is not consistent because of difficulties in identifying risks and enforcing specific warning. The ongoing debate surrounding the energy supplement known as ephedra (65 FR 30677 June 4, 1997; 65 FR 17474-17477 April 3, 2000; and 68 FR 10417 March 5, 2003) illustrates these problems. Although the product has been reported to have contributed to numerous adverse (and severe) reactions, specific warnings about the supplement have been difficult to enforce. Consumers may be aware that risks exist for some products based on their own experience or word-of-mouth, but they may be confused by the presence/absence of warnings on various brands and products. The new requirements in DSHEA posed the challenge of finding effective ways to convey rather subtle messages to consumers (Mason and Scammon 2000).

Since 1994, additional rules have been adopted and new proposals made to further refine the disclosures required when health or disease claims are made in ads (Federal Trade Commission 1994) and on labels (FDA 2003). In response to issues raised in Pearson v. …