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Officials Want To Place Limits On Ephedra Sales

Feb 24, 2003 | Greenwich Time

Connecticut's attorney general and the town's health director said last week they want stricter regulations on ephedra, the controversial dietary supplement under investigation for its possible role in the death of a Baltimore Orioles pitcher last week.

State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he had conducted a two-month inquiry into the potential dangers of ephedra and other dietary supplements.

"Part of our inquiry is to determine whether additional legislation may be possible," Blumenthal said Thursday. "There should be some more responsible regulation, whether it's as a drug or a similar product."

Blumenthal, a Greenwich resident, said he is looking into whether companies use deceptive and misleading practices to sell the product.

Ephedra is an herb most commonly used to lose weight and to boost energy for longer workouts. It is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration because it is not technically a drug. The FDA has reported that about 100 deaths have been linked to ephedrine, ephedra's main active ingredient. Another study found more than 1,500 side effects among ephedra users.

Ephedrine acts as a stimulant and helps people feel less hungry, said Robert Rosum, a clinical care supervisor at Greenwich Hospital. Products containing ephedrine can increase blood pressure and body temperature and may lead to heart attacks, seizures, strokes and addiction, he said. Many supplements are combined with caffeine which can cause arrhythmia, Rosum said.

The FDA is investigating whether ephedra is to blame for the death of Steve Bechler, a 23-year-old Orioles pitcher who died last Monday from heat stroke. As part of his training regimen, he reportedly used an ephedra-containing supplement. Rosum said such supplements limit sweating, causing body temperature to rise.

Caroline Calderone Baisley, director of the Greenwich Department of Health, said she hopes FDA officials will carefully consider whether ephedra-based products were linked to Bechler's death.

"A decision should be rendered whether these things because of their potency, and the effects they have on individuals should be regulated," she said. "In my opinion, it wouldn't be a bad idea."

A local law in Westchester County, N.Y., bans the sale of supplements containing ephedra to anyone under the age of 18. Baisley said she is not aware of any such proposed legislation for Connecticut.

However, some stores, including the GNC store in Riverside, have voluntarily decided to card minors who wish to buy the product.

State Sen. Chris Murphy, D-16th District, who chairs the General Assembly's Public Health Committee, said restricting sales of ephedra may become part of a bill he proposed to ban teachers and coaches from distributing supplements to students and athletes.

But when it comes to sales of ephedra, not everyone agrees they should be limited.

"It has so many legitimate uses, especially for asthmatics and people suffering this time of the year with all the coughs and colds and decongestion," said Leo Roberge, director of the Drug Control Division of the state Department of Consumer Protection. "It wouldn't be in the population's best interest to remove the product from the marketplace."

Michael Saluzzi, owner of the GNC store in Riverside, said ephedra is safe and effective if used in accordance with labels.

Because ephedra is often advertised as "ma huang" the Chinese name for the herb people are misled into thinking it is harmless, Rosum said.

"It should be a prescription medication," Rosum said. "This way, it will only be used in a proper setting, or will be monitored more safely."

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