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Diet Supplement Suit Only A Start, Says N.J.

Aug 2, 2003 | Gloucester County Times

Professionals agree that the public should know about the dangers of over-the-counter weight-loss supplements before the first pill is popped.

State Attorney General Peter Harvey said that consensus spearheaded the recent lawsuit filed against New Jersey diet pill manufacturer Cytodyne Technologies Inc., whose ephedra-based Xenadrine has been shown to cause serious side effects.

"We're taking a very close look at the diet supplement arena," Harvey said. "We have to look at it because if we don't, no one else will."

Xenadrine made headlines recently with the wrongful death lawsuit brought on behalf of the estate of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, who died during a spring training workout after ingesting Xenadrine RFA-1.

For Harvey, the state's pending suit is more about accountability than bank accounts.

"It's not our objective to put anybody out of business," Harvey said, adding that he hopes "responsible" health food stores will halt Xenadrine sales. "Money isn't really our objective, our objective is full disclosure to the public."

Opening the floodgates

Harvey said the suit, which was filed in Superior Court in Monmouth County, is the beginning of an ongoing initiative against the billion-dollar weight loss industry.

"Our first action is against Cytodyne," Harvey said. "We expect to file more actions against other companies that also offer ephedra on the basis of unsubstantiated research and unsubstantiated claims."

Ephedra is a stimulant derived from the Chinese herb ma huang, which has been shown to cause dizziness, anxiety and increase blood pressure and heart rates.

Representatives from Cytodyne could not be reached for comment.

Time for safety?

Dr. Craig Wax, a Harrison Township board-certified family physician and alternative and complementary medicine expert who hosts "Your Health Matters" on 89.7 Rowan Radio, said it's about time government got involved in the diet supplement business.

"My hope is that there will be more regulation of the assurance and quality content of the safety and efficacy of these over-the-counter supplement products," Wax said. "Not necessarily that they should be restricted in their sale, but the companies should be responsible and liable for the claims they make and their product safety."

As it stands now, Wax said, food supplement manufacturers do not have to prove safety or effectiveness and have been almost unrestricted in health claims.

"I'd like to see this action wake up the supplement industry so that they can be accountable and reputable in their business practices," Wax said.

The price of an endorsement

A handful of New Jersey doctors are also listed as defendants in the state's Cytodyne suit for allegedly signing testimonials backing the product.

While not unheard of, Jay Feinman, a law professor at Rutgers School of Law, said naming doctors in a suit is certainly uncommon.

"The attorney general goes after not just the company, but the doctors," Feinman said. "That's an interesting sort of factual incident in this case."

In the Cytodyne case, Harvey said doctors played a major role in misleading the public with bogus assertions.

"It's OK if you don't make affirmative claims based on clinical research," Harvey said. "It's quite another thing to also have doctors endorse a product when they have no expertise in this particular area."

Unlike the doctors named in the state's suit, Dr. Kathryn Lambert, a sports medicine specialist with University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, said she would not recommend that any of her patients take diet supplements and questioned why other doctors would back the product.

"People in the medical community try to advocate to never use these products," said Lambert, an assistant professor of Clinical Family Medicine. "I certainly can't think of any colleague who would do that for a dangerous product such as ephedra."

Product warranties

Just like with new automobiles, Feinman said, consumers should have the same assurances that weight loss supplements will deliver promised results.

"A drug that's made without the proper warnings is just like a car where the brakes fail suddenly," Feinman said. "If you make it such that it's unreasonably dangerous ... then the manufacturer is potentially liable."

Feinman said individuals injured by Xenadrine or similar supplements would have just as good a case if not better than the Attorney General.

"Somebody who makes a product which is potentially dangerous is going to be more concerned about their liability for personal injuries, that someone or their heirs is very likely to sue," Feinman said. "Here's an example where most people would say 'We want the tort system to work.'

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