Op-Ed

Two bottles of GenSpec are pictured side by side.

GenSpec, a Florida-based company, has begun selling new lines of multivitamins targeted at African-Americans, Caucasians, and Hispanics, touting them as "the first genetically specific nutritional supplements." This follows on the heels of the FDA's June 2005 approval of BiDil®, a drug marketed by NitroMed to treat heart failure specifically in African-Americans.

Is this trend towards a racial pharmacy good or bad medicine? During a recent conference at MIT, the NAACP, NitroMed executives, and Black cardiologists heralded BiDil's approval as a positive development for minority health care. In contrast, a number of sociologists and legal academics asserted that using race as a proxy for biological and genetic differences remains scientifically unproven and socially risky: it could reinforce the mistaken notion that race is fixed by genes and biology.

What we know for certain is that the claims of GenSpec and NitroMed are probably misleading. Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, has raised warning flags, arguing that " 'race' and 'ethnicity' are poorly defined terms that serve as flawed surrogates for...