Illinois on Sunday became the first state to ban sales of the herbal supplement ephedra, a stimulant that has been linked to strokes, anxiety and other side effects.
Ephedra is derived from the Chinese herbal Ma Huang and typically sold in small pouches at gas stations and convenience stores. Manufacturers variously claim ephedra can help users lose weight, improve sports performance and boost energy.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said ephedra “can have potentially dangerous effects on the nervous system and heart.”
Gov. Blagojevich signed a bill making it a misdemeanor to sell ephedra, punishable by up to a year in jail and $5,000 fine. While ephedra still is available on the Internet and in other states, “You’ll see much less impulse buying,” said state Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago).
Blagojevich said the Illinois ban is a first step that “needs [to] go nationwide.”
Kevin and Debbie Riggins of Downstate Lincoln initiated the drive to ban ephedra after their 16-year-old son, Sean, died of a heart attack at home Sept. 3. Sean, a middle linebacker on the Lincoln high school football team, took ephedra hoping to become faster and stronger.
Sean had no history of heart problems and had passed several sports physicals, his parents said.
“I would bet that 90 percent of the high school athletes are not aware of ephedra,” said Naperville North football coach Larry McKeon. “The NCAA just says that it is found in dietary products, but not which ones. My guess is that kids that are using something will keep using it whether there is [ephedra] in it or not.”
Sean’s parents attended the bill-signing Sunday at DePaul University, along with Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher and sponsors of the bill. The measure passed both houses unanimously.
“We caught the industry off-guard because we mobilized quickly,” Obama said.
Lake Zurich senior and Loyola University signee Sam Romanoski, an all-state standout in cross-country and track, strongly disagrees with the use of ephedra.
“Everything should be natural,” he said. “They did a smart thing [banning sales], and I agree fully with it. I would never take it and I don’t know if any of my schoolmates would.”
The ban took effect after Blagojevich signed it. The Illinois Retail Merchants Association has warned members to stop selling ephedra, and the state plans to notify law enforcement agencies about the ban.
Nevertheless, some merchants still might be selling remaining supplies, Obama said.
Some observers have suggested that athletes who really want to get ephedra can go north to Wisconsin to get it.
“If they do, they’re pretty desperate for it,” said Romanoski. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen. Even in this area, I don’t know anyone who would do that stuff.”
Between 12 million and 17 million Americans consume more than 3 billion servings of ephedra products every year, according to the Ephedra Education Council, a trade group. The supplement is safe when taken as directed, the council said.
The FDA has received 16,000 reports of “adverse events” suffered by ephedra users, ranging from insomnia to strokes. While there’s no proof ephedra caused the problems, the numbers indicate possible safety problems.
Ephedra accounts for less than 1 percent of all dietary supplement sales, but 64 percent of adverse events associated with dietary supplements, according to a recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.