Suffolk County yesterday banned the sale of all dietary supplements that contain the highly controversial stimulant ephedra.
Joined by the parents of a Suffolk resident who died after using the popular herb, and the widower of another, County Executive Robert Gaffney signed the measure into law at a news conference in Hauppauge.
“If a substance has been identified as dangerous, as life-threatening, then government is obligated to help keep that substance from the people,” Gaffney said. Suffolk is believed to be the first municipality outlawing the sale of ephedra.
Diet pill distributors criticized the law.
“I think it’s un-American to have a county legislature determine how people can take care of their health and their weight,” said Bob Wagner, owner of Bohemia-based Wagner and Associates, which distributes products containing ephedra.
Wes Siegner, general counsel of the Ephedra Education Council in Washington, D.C., said in a statement, “Suffolk County has ignored the more than 55 clinical studies on ephedra, and the many medical and scientific experts who have concluded that these supplements are safe and have significant health benefits when taken as directed.”
Ephedra is touted as a supplement that can help people lose weight and improve athletes’ performances.
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration proposed requiring warning labels that say ephedra, which is used by millions of Americans, can cause heart attacks, seizures, strokes or even death.
That announcement came after the heatstroke death of a Baltimore Orioles baseball player was linked to his use of ephedra, an adrenaline-like substance that can quicken the heart rate and cause blood vessels to constrict. A Florida medical examiner said a preliminary autopsy showed ephedra was a factor in pitcher Steve Bechler’s death, along with a history of borderline high blood pressure, liver abnormalities and his exerting himself on an empty stomach. The FDA has received reports of about 100 deaths related to ephedra.
Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association, a Silver Spring, Md.-based trade group, argued that the issue should be addressed by federal officials, not county by county. “The federal government is working toward a process establishing some new regulations,” he said. “I’m concerned that this county is not patiently supporting the federal process.”
But bill sponsor Legis. Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor) and Gaffney contended the lack of action on the national level prompted them to approve their own measure.
Cooper said he hoped the ban would “serve as the catalyst and model for a national movement to remove ephedra dietary supplements from the shelves of stores all across the country.”
Suffolk’s legislation carries a penalty of $5,000 for anyone selling or offering to sell any dietary supplement with ephedra, although Cooper said first-time offenders probably would receive a warning.
The county health department is responsible for enforcing the law, which goes into effect when it is filed with the state. That could take four to six weeks.
Wagner said the ban would hurt the county economically. “It will obviously take a lot of revenue out of Suffolk County,” he said. “People will be getting products with ephedra elsewhere. … They’ll get it in Nassau County, or [New York] City, or they’ll order it on the Internet.”
The issue caught Cooper’s attention when he heard from Tom and Karen Schlendorf of Asharoken, whose son, Peter, 20, died in 1998 after ingesting large amounts of an ephedra-based “herbal ecstasy.”
Calling Suffolk’s ban “the first really positive step” after years of activism, Karen Schlendorf said, “Perhaps Albany and Washington will follow their lead.”