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Davis Signs Bill That Bans Sale of Ephedra-Based Pills

Oct 13, 2003 | San Diego UNION TRIBUNE Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation late last night to make California the third state to ban the sale of ephedra-based diet pills that some doctors blame for causing strokes, seizures and heart attacks.

Ephedra-based herbal supplements, which rev up metabolism, have been promoted for years as products that help people lose weight and enhance the intensity of physical workouts.

The law, which takes effect in January, wipes out a market worth scores of millions of dollars that San Diego-based Metabolife International once turned into a stunning business success. In recent months, Metabolife and other companies have been touting diet pills without ephedra, a naturally occurring herb.

California's action comes while the Food and Drug Administration, which hadn't regulated herbal supplements because of a 1994 law, is considering new restrictions. The federal government could ban ephedra-based products or merely require warning labels.

The FDA's interest was spurred by the death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, whose fatal heatstroke last spring was linked to his use of ephedra.

Davis signed Senate Bill 582, by Jackie Speier, D-Burlingame, as the deadline for approving or vetoing legislation approached yesterday evening. It was one of the last opportunities the governor had to decide the fate of legislation.

Davis, a Democrat, was removed from office by voters Tuesday in the recall election in favor of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who takes office in about a month.

In a statement, Speier said she was "extremely" pleased that this "modern day snake oil is off of store shelves."

"California is doing the job the federal government won't – acting to save lives," she said.

She said that ephedra products are "neither safe nor effective."

Last year, California became one of several states to require consumer warnings on ephedra dietary supplements. Now California joins New York and Illinois in banning the products.

Officials with Metabolife could not be reached late last night. Over the summer the company spokeswoman, Jan Strode, released a statement urging the governor to veto the bill, saying ephedra products are a "safe and effective tool for weight loss when used as directed."

The statement said the company believed the governor should "not eliminate access to products that are beneficial and can be used in a safe and effective manner."

Randy Pollack, a lobbyist for the American Herbal Products Association, a trade group, said "We are disappointed."

"California took the wrong course. It should have waited until the FDA made its determinations" for regulating ephedra, he said in a statement.

Opponents also argued that the ban on retail sales would merely force consumers to buy ephedra supplements over the Internet and deprive the cash-starved state of needed sales tax.

With the ban, Davis has come full circle. In 2000, Davis vetoed a bill by San Diego Assemblywoman Susan Davis that would have required warning labels on ephedra products. At the time, Gov. Davis had received $100,000 in campaign contributions from Metabolife, sparking accusations that he traded favors for donations.

Last year, after Metabolife was the subject of a federal investigation over the withholding of 13,000 reports about problems with the products, the governor reversed himself and signed the warning-label bill.

The dangers of ephedra products first gained wide notice in a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in late 2000, which linked ephedra to seizures, strokes and fatal heart attacks.

Researchers looked at 140 cases of health problems, finding a direct link between the product and nearly one-third of the cases.

Industry officials disputed the study and in many cases worked against strict regulation. As part of their effort to influence legislators, Metabolife and its executives have been generous donors to state and federal politicians.

Several athletic organizations, the National Football League, the International Olympic Committee and the National Collegiate Athletic Association have banned ephedra-based products.

SB 582 was supported by the California Medical Association and Consumers Union.

Davis' decision to sign the legislation continues a pattern he has developed of favoring consumers over business. Over the summer, the governor dropped his opposition to legislation guarding consumers' privacy and signed a landmark bill.

During his first two years in office, Davis positioned himself as a centrist who was just as likely to side with business interests as consumers.

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