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Ephedra Ban Wins Panel's Approval

'It Killed My Son's Heart,' Says Riggins

Mar 7, 2003 | Lincoln Courier Illinois moved a step closer today to banning ephedra, the herbal supplement that contributed to the death of 16-year-old Lincoln resident Sean Riggins last September.

By a 12-0 margin, the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill that would make it a crime to sell or distribute dietary supplements containing ephedra in Illinois. The full House will now vote on the legislation.

Lincoln resident Kevin Riggins, Sean's father, testified before the committee and told them about his son and why he believes ephedra should be taken off store shelves. Sean died last September from a heart attack brought on by ephedra that he had purchased from a local convenience store.

"Sean and his friends thought that this would give them an edge on the football field. What happened was it gave them so much of an edge that it killed my son's heart," Riggins said.

Also testifying before the committee was Michelle Skinlo of Mattoon, who spoke on behalf of her daughter, Hilary Spitz. Twenty-nine-year-old Spitz suffered a 13-hour seizure in March 2000 after taking five ephedra tablets over 10 days in an effort to lose weight. Since then, she has suffered from short-term memory loss, heightened agitation and blood clots.

"The doctors said it was due to the herbal diet supplement that contained ephedra, and her heart would have exploded if they hadn't seen her when they did," Skinlo said.

In the past few years, the Food and Drug Administration has received more than 18,000 reports of adverse reactions to ephedra, including strokes, seizure, high blood pressure, heart attacks and death. The ephedra-induced death of professional baseball player Steve Bechler last month prompted nationwide attention and scrutiny to the widely available substance.

The FDA last week mandated that warning labels be placed on products containing ephedra and hinted at a ban once a 30-day public comment period is complete.

From 1958 to 1994, the FDA fully regulated dietary supplements. In 1994, President Clinton signed into law the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act after heavy lobbying by supplement manufactures. Now, makers of dietary supplements do not have to register with or seek approval from the FDA when marketing their products.

"If you look into that law, you would not believe it. They need no pre-marketing approval, don't need a license to market it, the report of adverse affects is voluntary, and the burden of proof to prove this stuff is deadly is on the FDA and the companies don't have to do anything," Riggins said after the committee hearing.

Sean's mother, Debbie Riggins, said that the FDA's loose grip on dietary supplements makes ephedra more dangerous because the ingredients are not standardized, although some manufactures voluntarily use a standard amount of ephedra in each capsule.

"Because the FDA doesn't control what goes into those capsules, you don't know how much is in the capsule, or what's in the capsule," Riggins said. "Phen-fen was taken off the market after eight or 10 deaths, PPAs (cold capsules containing phenylpropanolamine) were taken away after seven deaths, and we have at least 100 deaths attributed to ephedra."

Since his son's death, Kevin Riggins has been working tirelessly to educate the public about the dangers of ephedra. He recently created the Sean Riggins Foundation for Substance-Free Schools and gives presentations at high schools not only about ephedra but also about the perils of alcohol and drugs.

"When we did our program at Lincoln high school and we asked the kids how many of them knew people that have taken drugs, 75 percent of them raised their hands," Riggins said. "So we want to address that in not so much in just telling them not to do drugs, but about making choices in your life."

Riggins said he believes that a ban will come soon at either the state or federal level.

"I think Illinois can be the benchmark for the rest of the country, we can set the standard by passing this bill in to law and banning this substance," Riggins said.

The proposal's sponsor Rep. Sara Fiegenholtz, D-Chicago, said the ease in which the bill passed through committee is a strong indicator that it will be successful in the full legislature.

"We had no opposition in there. People are starting to understand how dangerous this substance is, and hopefully, we'll be able to completely get it off the shelves in Illinois," Fiegenholtz said.

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