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Legal Eye: Garlic and other wonder drugs

  • Poland
  • Food and drink


According to the advertising aired around the evening news, the right set of pills containing vitamins, minerals and other dietary supplements will make my skin beautiful, relieve cold symptoms lickety-split and keep my vital organs strong. Natural cures and preventive measures have a great appeal to me. I was thrilled to learn that chicken soup really does help relieve cold symptoms.

But, ultimately, I’m a bit confused. With all the beneficial claims of dietary supplements, what’s the difference between a dietary supplement and medicine?

“Feels like” legislation

I turned to Polish law to answer this puzzle. Unfortunately, it does not provide much clarity. The respective definitions of ‘medicine’ and ‘dietary supplement’ overlap enough that, when in doubt, the classification must be made on a case-by-case basis. One of the major overlaps is that both definitions refer to physiological effects.

Generally speaking, a medicine is a substance that is promoted as preventing or curing a disease, or which causes physiological changes in your body. The definition of dietary supplements also refers to, among other things, “substances indicating a nutritional or other physiological effect.”

The garlic dilemma

The question of whether it seems more like a medicine or a dietary supplement has even reached the European Court of Justice in reference to a rather humble product: garlic. Garlic, it turns out, is not only useful in keeping away undesirable companions (mosquitoes, boring dates, maybe vampires), but also kills bacteria and free radicals.

The Court had to decide whether garlic in a concentrated pill form should be treated as a medicine or a dietary supplement. The Court determined that this particular garlic product was a dietary supplement. Although it potentially had physiological effects, those were only of an immaterial therapeutic nature.

Borderline products

To complicate matters further, there is a third category of products, called “borderline.” As the name suggests, these are products that fall under the definition of a medicine and some other definition. Examples of these types of products are a hand ointment that contains a diluted amount of anti-itch medicine or a cough remedy that contains a trace of a medicinal cough suppressant.

Through December 31, 2009, a transition period was in effect that allowed borderline products to be treated as dietary supplements. As of this year, however, borderline products are treated as medicine.


In general, dietary supplements may be advertised to the public, but prescription medicine may not.

The only exception to the advertising ban on medicine concerns over-the-counter (OTC) remedies. The producers of OTC remedies may advertise their products, if they do not figure on the Ministry of Health’s list of reimbursed medicines.

The producers of dietary supplements do not have this broad ban on advertising. They may advertise their products, with certain limits on claims. Most importantly, they are not supposed to make any claims about the ability of the supplement to prevent or cure a disease.

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Renata Patoka, our resident expert on pharmaceuticals and food products, in preparing this article.

Source: Judith Gliniecki, Warsaw Business Journal, March 1st 2010