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Father Preaches Dangers of Ephedra

Apr 26, 2003 | Henderson Gleaner Kevin Riggins knows what he's talking about when he tells groups across the region about the dangers of the stimulant ephedra.

His only child, 16-year-old Sean Riggins, died suddenly last year after taking the drug. Sean wrestled and played football, and he and some teammates took "yellow jackets," a dietary supplement containing ephedra, to improve their performance during competitions. The drugs are readily available at many convenience stores, which is where Sean Riggins and his friends bought theirs. It cost them $1.50 for three pills.

"They were taking pills before practice to help them get a starting position on the team. They were taking them before wrestling meets because they got out there and had more energy," Riggins told a small group at Vincennes University on Friday.

On Sept. 2, Sean sat on the bench instead of joining his football team on the field.

He complained of an upset stomach and headache. The next day, a doctor said he had bronchitis, gave him an antibiotic and sent him home.

Within hours, Sean began having seizures and stopped breathing. He died of a heart attack.

"(Sean) made the wrong choice, even though it was an uninformed choice and he didn't realize the dangers of it. I know that," Riggins said. "But because he made the wrong choice, he doesn't get a second chance."

Since the death, Kevin and Debbie Riggins, of Lincoln, Ill., started the Sean Riggins Foundation for Substance-Free Schools. Kevin Riggins travels and speaks to middle and high-school students about ephedra and has testified before Congress about the dangers of the drug, which is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Ephedra, also referred to by its Chinese name, Ma-huang, or as "Mormon tea" or "Brigham tea," dates back 2,000 years. Its original use was to induce sweat and the excretion of urine to help in weight loss, and it was also prescribed for typhoid fever and bad colds.

It's estimated that some 15 million Americans take products containing ephedra, commonly found in dietary supplements such as Metabolife or Xenadrine RFA-1, two of the most popular supplements sold at nutritional stores across the country.

The deaths of several professional athletes have been linked to ephedra as well, and now the FDA is moving toward stricter regulations. The Illinois Legislature is considering a bill that would ban ephedra products altogether, due in part to Riggins' testimony before an Illinois House committee.

The FDA has linked more than 120 deaths to ephedra-containing products. The dietary supplement industry had $17.5 billion in sales last year.

"This has been very therapeutic. for one thing. And I know my son, and this is something he would have liked to have seen done," Riggins said of his crusade.

"The problem is, America is looking for a quick fix. You don't need some kind of miracle pill, because there is no such thing," he said.

Riggins said he understands the difficulty of going head-to-head with a multibillion-dollar industry, but he said, without education, more children are going to die.

"While you're making the right choice, which is not always the popular choice, you are breaking the chains of slavery, the slavery to the drug companies that are telling you these drugs are safe," Riggins said.

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