Congress cranked the heat up on ephedra companies on Wednesday as a House committee made plans for hearings on the herbal supplement linked to the death of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler.
The House Commerce and Energy Committee will hold hearings, perhaps this month, to determine whether the Food and Drug Administration has authority to regulate ephedra.
The committee has also asked Cytodyne Technologies – the New Jersey company that makes Xenadrine RFA-1, the diet aid Bechler used for information on consumer health complaints and lawsuits.
“I hope that this investigation is the first of many steps that will lead us to comprehensive regulation of the dietary supplement industry,” said Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), who has pushed for hearings on ephedra for more than two years.
Suffolk County executive Robert Gaffney, meanwhile, signed a bill on Wednesday making it illegal to sell ephedra in the eastern Long Island county, the first outright ban in the nation.
“This is the first step, but I’m hoping this goes far beyond Suffolk County,” said legislator Jon Cooper, the bill’s sponsor.
“Ephedra kills. Ephedra should be banned in Seattle. It should be banned in Sacramento. It should be banned, period.”
Suffolk lawmakers approved the ephedra ban before Bechler died, but calls for stricter regulation after his death added national pressure on Gaffney to approve the bill. It will become law in 30 days.
“Bechler’s death made it all but a certainty the bill would be signed,” Cooper said.
He said it is crucial that Congress amend the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, the 1994 law that allows companies to sell supplements without testing for safety.
“Some of these companies are already replacing ephedra with other stimulants and marketing them as if they are safer,” Cooper said. “That’s what happens when you place profits above health.”
Bob Wagner, president of supplement distributor Wagner & Co. in Bohemia, L.I., blasted the ban.
“I’m embarrassed to be a resident of Suffolk County,” he said. “This is un-American. You can buy cigarettes, you can buy alcohol, but you can’t buy an herbal product to lose weight.”
Ephedra, linked to strokes, heart attacks and more than 100 deaths, has been banned by the NFL, NCAA and International Olympic Committee. Last month, Major League Baseball banned its use by players with minor league contracts.
Sports officials, public health advocates and a handful of politicians have called for Congress to amend DSHEA for years, but their calls went unanswered until Bechler’s death. “His death has changed the political landscape,” Cooper said.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) now believes he can muster enough support to amend DSHEA, and he’s working on a bill that would subject ephedra to much stronger FDA regulation. Federal regulators have proposed new labels on ephedra products to warn consumers of the risk of heart attacks, strokes and death.
“People have asked me if it bothers me that nothing happened until a professional athlete died,” said Karen Schlendorf of Northport, L.I., N.Y., whose son, Peter, died seven years ago this week after using an ephedra product. “It doesn’t. I’m glad our county is saying health and safety come before profits.
“This (the Suffolk ban) is just the first step. Now we have to get a national law passed.”