Vitamin D, the Sunshine Supplement, Has Shadowy Money Behind It

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Since 2011, Dr. Holick’s advocacy has been embraced by the wellness-industrial complex. Gwyneth Paltrow’s website, Goop, cites his writing. Dr. Mehmet Oz has described vitamin D as “the No. 1 thing you need more of,” telling his audience that it can help them avoid heart disease, depression, weight gain, memory loss and cancer. And Oprah Winfrey’s website tells readers that, “knowing your vitamin D levels might save your life.” Mainstream doctors have also urged Americans to get more of the hormone, including Dr. Walter Willett, a widely respected professor at Harvard Medical School.

Today, seven years after the dueling academic findings, the leaders of the National Academy report are struggling to be heard above the clamor for more sunshine pills. “There isn’t a ‘pandemic,’” said A. Catharine Ross, a nutritional sciences professor at Penn State and chairwoman of the committee that wrote the report, in an interview. “There isn’t a widespread problem.”

Ties to Drugmakers and Tanning Salons

In “The Vitamin D Solution,” Dr. Holick describes his promotion of vitamin D as a lonely crusade. “Drug companies can sell fear,” he writes, “but they can’t sell sunlight, so there’s no promotion of the sun’s health benefits.”

Yet Dr. Holick also has extensive financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry. He received nearly $163,000 from 2013 to 2017 from pharmaceutical companies for consulting and other services, according to Medicare’s Open Payments database, which tracks payments from drug and device manufacturers. The companies paying him included Sanofi-Aventis, which markets vitamin D supplements; Shire, which makes drugs for hormonal disorders that are given with vitamin D; Amgen, which makes an osteoporosis treatment; and Roche Diagnostics and Quidel Corporation, which both make vitamin D tests.

The database includes only payments made since 2013, but Dr. Holick’s record of being compensated by drug companies started before that. In his 2010 book, he describes visiting South Africa to give “talks for a pharmaceutical company,” whose president and chief executive were in the audience.

Dr. Holick’s ties to the tanning industry also have drawn scrutiny. Although Dr. Holick said he doesn’t advocate tanning, he has described tanning beds as a “recommended source” of vitamin D “when used in moderation.” Dr. Holick has acknowledged accepting research money from the UV Foundation — a nonprofit arm of the now-defunct Indoor Tanning Association — which gave $150,000 to Boston University from 2004 to 2006, earmarked for Dr. Holick’s research. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified tanning beds as carcinogenic in 2009.

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