Now that Suffolk County Executive Robert Gaffney has signed into law a ban on sales of the dietary supplement ephedra, it’s time to acknowledge that the county has become part of a growing momentum toward national action. That’s a genuine plus for public health.
It took Legis. Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor) months to do the research and get the bill passed. He had to overcome fierce opposition from the powerful supplement industry and fight against the often-correct perception that the Suffolk County Legislature frequently oversteps by trying to do what only higher levels of government should really attempt.
In this case, as with his bill restricting cell-phone use by drivers, Cooper has emerged as a pioneer. The inspiration for his ephedra ban was the 1996 death of a constituent, Peter Schlendorf. The bill passed last month, just a few days before the death of Steve Bechler, a young Baltimore Orioles pitcher . A medical examiner said ephedra was a likely contributor to Bechler’s death from heatstroke. That death, plus the Suffolk ban, have helped build up steam for more sweeping national change.
The Food and Drug Administration is moving toward warning labels on ephedra products. Baseball has prohibited its use in the minor leagues. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who has the power under certain circumstances to ban it, has said he wouldn’t use it or recommend it.
Most important, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has been urging Thompson to ban ephedra, is preparing a bill to improve federal control of the most dangerous supplements, such as stimulants and steroids. Before prescription drugs go on the market, the industry must prove them safe and effective. But the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 exempted supplements, putting the burden of proof on government to prove them unsafe.
Durbin’s bill would require the industry to prove supplements safe before they can be sold, and it would direct manufacturers to report adverse side effects regularly. His approach is right on target. If it passes, as it should, Suffolk can honestly say it helped.