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Lawmakers Target Ephedra

Nov 6, 2003 | AP

Members of Congress urged the Food and Drug Administration to immediately ban the retail sale of ephedra, the dietary supplement they said has been linked to hundreds of deaths.

"Ephedra isn't snake oil it's snake venom," said Rep. Jim Greenwood (R., Pa.), who chaired hearings on the supplement last summer in the wake of the death of a 23-year-old Baltimore Orioles pitcher who had been taking ephedra.

"Snake oil is something that you take that doesn't do you any good," said Rep. Greenwood. "Snake venom and ephedra is snake venom kills. This product is not only of no value for weight loss, [it has got] no value for anything that is connected with good health. And it is extremely dangerous."

The FDA is considering a nationwide ephedra ban, similar to ones in New York, California and Illinois. But while Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson remains concerned about the supplement, "we are going as far as we can right now within the context of the law," said spokesman Bill Pierce.

A 1994 law left dietary supplements largely unregulated. The statute requires the FDA to prove that a dietary supplement is harmful rather than having the manufacturer prove that it is safe, as with drugs. The agency is currently collecting that legal and scientific evidence.

Since the law only applies to natural dietary supplements, the FDA already has yanked manufactured, or synthetic, ephedra from retail shelves, noted Mr. Pierce.

Ephedra is used to lose weight and boost athletic performance. The Ephedra Education Council, an industry-funded group, has said the supplement is safe when used correctly. The group also said there is no clinical study that shows the supplement causes harm.

But Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), said the supplement has been linked to at least 155 deaths and 16,500 heart attacks, strokes and seizures.

"Nothing's been done by Sec. Thompson," charged Sen. Durbin. "These are lethal products that are killing unsuspecting Americans, and it should be taken off the shelves immediately."

Also calling for the ban were California Democratic Reps. Susan Davis and Henry Waxman and Rep. Greg Walden (R., Ore.).

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