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State Enters Ephedra Debate

New bill would ban dietary supplement

Apr 1, 2003 | Boston Globe

Wading into a national health controversy, state lawmakers began debate yesterday on a bill that would ban the dietary supplement ephedra, a popular herbal slimming substance implicated in a Major League baseball player's death two months ago.

If passed, the bill would give state health officials broad powers to confiscate products containing ephedra, which are stocked by the caseload at most health food and supplement stores around the state and sold under brands including Metabolife and Dexatrim.

Dieters and sports enthusiasts have made ephedra a billion-dollar ingredient that has withstood repeated efforts to regulate it more tightly. But the political landscape changed dramatically in February, when 23-year-old Baltimore Orioles pitching prospect Steve Bechler collapsed and died on a Florida spring training field.

Florida health officials blamed the death in part on ephedra, which Bechler had been regularly consuming in order to lose weight. Two weeks later, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a strong warning that the herb could cause heart attacks and strokes. Ephedra is derived from the ma huang plant, and quickens the heart rate and constricts blood vessels.

Though a handful of short-term studies show these properties may help with weight loss, ''there are no long-term studies assessing the effects of these supplements on weight loss,'' said Dr. George L. Blackburn, Harvard nutrition medicine professor, who testified yesterday on Beacon Hill in support of the ban.

State lawmakers said the bill could be put to a vote this month or in May. A similar bill languished last year, but the bill's sponsor, Senator Richard Moore, an Uxbridge Democrat, said current events would propel the new version forward.

''Increasingly, you hear more and more stories about its dangers,'' he said.

The FDA has linked ephedra to at least 100 deaths in recent years.

''It's time for state action to address the real risks and minimal benefits of [ephedra] in dietary supplements,'' said Dr. Kimball Atwood, testifying for the Massachusetts Medical Society.

No ephedra supporters appeared at yesterday's hearing.

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