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New Bill Would Outlaw Ephedra Herb Reportedly Used By Pitcher Who Died

Feb 21, 2003 | San Francisco Chronicle

Less than a week after a Baltimore Orioles pitcher collapsed and died at spring training, a state senator said she will introduce a bill outlawing dietary supplements that contain ephedra.

State Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, says she wants to act quickly to ban ephedra, an herb stimulant that Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler reportedly used for weight reduction. An ephedra-based supplement was found in his locker,

but toxicology tests are still being conducted to determine the exact cause of death.

"How many more people have to die before we decide that ephedra poses an unacceptable risk to the public?" said Speier.

Under a California law that went into effect last month, sales of ephedra- based products to minors are outlawed, and warning labels are required for dietary supplements that contain the herb. The labels must include a toll-free number to report health problems to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Speier was author of that bill but says recent studies and mounting evidence that ephedra causes death, combined with a lack of firm action by federal health authorities, convinced her the state should "remove these products from California shelves completely."

Ephedra-based products can increase the heart rate and constrict blood vessels, making it harder for the body to cool and damaging the cardiovascular system. Ephedra contains ephedrine, which is found in over-the-counter decongestants and cold medicine but is not considered a drug.

Dietary supplements containing ephedra are essentially unregulated by the FDA and treated more like food products than powerful pharmacological substances that should be tested and regulated like drugs, Speier said. Gov. Gray Davis originally balked at state regulations on ephedra but signed Speier's measure last year. Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio said the administration had urged the FDA to move quickly to regulate ephedra in a letter sent last April to the FDA.

"It's more effective when the federal government regulates drugs because then you don't have a mishmash of state standards," Maviglio said Thursday. "The governor thinks there is overwhelming evidence for the federal government to act."

Maviglio said the governor had not seen Speier's bill and would not comment on whether he would sign it. Davis received $100,000 for his re-election campaign from Metabolife International Inc., a major supplier of ephedra-based products, but he has consistently denied any link between contributions and action from his office.

Mounting evidence shows ephedra is dangerous. A study by the New England Journal of Medicine linked 54 deaths with the supplement. The Pentagon has issued warnings against soldiers using ephedra, and Canada has warned consumers not to use it.

A study released two weeks ago by researchers at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center found that ephedra accounted for 64 percent of all health problems associated with herbs that were reported to poison-control centers in 2001.

The "relative risk" of using ephedra is pegged by the study at 200, which principal researcher Dr. Michael Shlipak said "is phenomenal. That means your increased risk is 20,000 percent compared to using ginkgo or other herbs."

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