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Athletes Sue Over Ephedra

Stimulant blamed for health woes

Apr 10, 2003 | Houston Chronicle

A former University of Houston basketball player and other local athletes on Wednesday join the slew of people nationwide who have filed lawsuits against manufacturers of products containing ephedra, an herbal stimulant.

The lawsuit by Jahn Bernard Smith is one of 15 filed Wednesday by a group of Houston attorneys.

In December 2001, at age 22, Smith suffered a heart attack, kidney failure and liver damage, and doctors could not understand why.

"They asked me if I took cocaine," said Smith, who also played at the University of Texas. "I've never taken any kind of drugs, not even alcohol."

Smith didn't suspect the herbal stimulant ephedra might have been a factor until the death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler in February. Last month, a Florida coroner said Bechler's use of ephedra helped cause his fatal heatstroke.

That eventually led Smith to file a lawsuit in Montgomery County against dietary supplement maker Twin Laboratories Inc.

On Wednesday, state court lawsuits were filed in Montgomery, Tarrant, Dallas, Van Zandt, Hidalgo, Jefferson, Palo Pinto and Titus counties, as well as in Bernalillo County, N.M., and Los Angeles. The Houston lawyers previously have filed one lawsuit each in state court in Houston and federal court in Georgia.

"This is a bad product that has hurt a lot of people," said Tommy Fibich, whose law firm filed the lawsuits.

Some of the lawsuits were filed by people claiming ephedra-related injuries and others by family members of ephedra users who died from strokes, heart attacks or other medical problems.

Young athletes like Smith used ephedra as an energy boost to enhance workouts. Others used ephedra in weight-loss products like Metabolife, also included in the lawsuits.

The lawsuits are requesting unspecified monetary damages, Fibich said.

A corporate spokesman for Hauppage, N.Y.-based Twin Laboratories said he could not comment on Smith's lawsuit because he hadn't seen it, but added that the product in question Ripped Fuel was "safe and effective when taken according to instructions."

The lawsuits also targeted San Diego-based Metabolife International; Century City, Calif.-based Herbalife International; Cytodyne Technologies Inc.; and Zoetermeer, Netherlands-based Royal Numico NV, which faces lawsuits both as a maker of products under the Rexall Sundown brand and as a retailer at General Nutrition Center stores. Wal-Mart and a number of smaller retailers also are named in several suits.

During a news conference Wednesday, attorneys played videotaped depositions of Metabolife Vice President Robert Herrmann and founder Michael Ellis.

Herrmann, who said he had taken his company's products without consulting a physician, was asked to read the warning label on a bottle of Metabolife 356.

"I can't see it. I cannot read this small a font," Herrmann said, later explaining his laser eye surgery made it difficult to read small, all-capital letters. Using reading glasses provided by Fibich, Herrmann managed to read the instructions, which included a warning not to use the products without first consulting a doctor.

Ellis refused to answer questions based on his "privilege against self-incrimination."

Many makers of ephedrine-based diet aids have switched to non-ephedrine formulas in recent months as debate over the substance, which is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, has intensified. Twin Laboratories' Chief Executive Ross Blechman said last November that the company's change in formulas was a "sound business decision in the current climate of escalating insurance costs, and regulatory uncertainties."

Last week, the American Heart Association joined several consumer groups in calling for a ban on all ephedra-based supplements.

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