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Prosecutors Take Aim At Fat Loss Herb

Mar 24, 2003 | Napa Valley Register

When shoppers approach Maria Chaney's checkstand with a diet supplement containing ephedra, a Chinese herb used in popular weight loss supplements like Xenadrine, Metabolife and Hydroxycut, she issues a warning.

"I tell everyone at Target not to take it because I don't want them to die," the Napa woman said.

While using an ephedra-based Herbalife supplement to lose a few pounds, the right side of her face grew numb on three separate occasions.

"I knew it was a prelude to a stroke," Chaney said.

The controversial herb, also known as Ma huang, was partly to blame for the heatstroke death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, according to the medical examiner on the case. Bechler was taking Xenadrine, an over-the-counter drug the Napa County District Attorney's office is tackling in court.

"The ephedra works by increasing the levels of adrenaline in the body," said Dr. Alan Tenaglia, a cardiologist at St. Helena Hospital. "In some cases it can improve weight loss. But there are adverse affects of increased adrenaline, particularly in patients who have a history of heart disease."

For individuals with high blood pressure, ephedra can worsen their condition and predispose them to stroke, Tenaglia said. For patients with coronary heart disease, ephedra may increase their heart rate and blood pressure and heighten the chance of a heart attack. For those who are healthy, ephedra can increase the chance of an abnormal heart rhythm, to the point where the heart is "beating so fast it can't function properly," he said.

Supplement companies usually mix ephedra with caffeine and white willow bark, a combination touted as an effective appetite suppressant. Ephedra has also been used to manufacture the illegal street drug methamphetamine.

It's banned by the NCAA, NFL and International Olympic Committee. Major League Baseball also wants to ban it, but the players union will likely oppose it.

The Food and Drug Administration says at least 100 deaths have been linked to ephedra, and the Bush administration began building the case toward a possible ban of ephedra last month by proposing strong new warning labels cautioning that the substance can cause heart attacks and strokes or even kill.

County Deputy District Attorney Daryl Roberts said warning labels are too soft a solution.

"They should ban this outright," Roberts said.

In a joint suit with San Diego and the counties of San Francisco, Alameda, Kern, Marin, Monterey, San Benito and Sonoma, the Napa County district attorney's office is suing Cytodyne Technologies Inc., and its corporate officer, Robert Chinery, to stop alleged false advertising in the statewide sale of Xenadrine RFA-1.

The Register's phone calls to Cytodyne's headquarters for comment were not returned.

Cytodyne no longer offers the ephedra version of Xenadrine on its Web site, or even mentions Xenadrine RFA-1. The product is, however, still available at several chain stores including GNC and Wal-Mart.

The civil lawsuit claims Xenadrine's advertisements failed to disclose a "known association between the use of dietary supplements containing ephedra and such adverse events as death, heart attack, stroke, cardiac arrhythmia, hypertension and seizures."

The goal of the suit, Roberts said, is to have Xenadrine's makers put the warnings on all its advertisements, not just labels.

"It's got to be very clear," Roberts said.

Twenty-six-year-old Jamie Fraid bought a bottle of Hydroxycut, also an ephedra-based supplement, to lose five pounds.

She followed the label's recommendation to take three tablets a day during the first week, and was thrilled to find it curbed her appetite. But when she followed the manufacturer's directions to up the dosage to six tablets a day during the second week, she began to get jumpy.

"There were times when my heart was racing and it scared me," Fraid said.

During her workshift at the Napa County jail, her heart pounded at such an alarming rate that she visited the nurse's station.

"The nurse asked, 'Why is your pulse racing right now? It's way too high for someone your weight and height,'" Fraid said. Shortly after, she gave the rest of the pills away.

"My mom was always warning me and cutting out articles," she said.

Fraid recently bought a bottle of the new ephedra-free version of Xenadrine, but stopped taking it because it didn't curb her appetite like the ephedra supplement did.

But St. Helena cardiologist Tenaglia said there's only one way to lose weight and it doesn't come in a bottle. It's simple math: take in less calories than you burn off.

"There is no quick fix and you need to do all the right things with lifestyle changes we have been recommending for years, the low-cholesterol and low-fat diet and increased exercise," he said.

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