Rexall Sundown has stopped selling dietary supplements with ephedra, citing warning consumer demand because of mounting safety concerns about the herbal weight-loss pills.
The Boca Raton vitamin maker was among the largest sellers of ephedra products, which at their peak in the late 1990s were used by nearly 17 million Americans.
While sales had started to drop in the past few years, the stimulant took a major hit when it was implicated in the death of 23-year-old Baltimore Orioles pitching prospect Steve Bechler, who collapsed during a spring training workout in February in Fort Lauderdale. Rexall did not make the brand Bechler used.
Rexall’s ephedra products are its Metab-O-LITE weight-loss supplement and its sports drink Thermo-S-25. Rexall has stopped manufacturing and distributing ephedra products in the past two weeks, but it could take months until supplies on store shelves are depleted.
“Although we still feel ephedra products are beneficial when used as directed, decreasing consumer interest in ephedra products has led us to this decision,” Rexall spokesman Carol Walters said Wednesday.
Over the past few years, Rexall has launched alternative weight-loss supplements not containing ephedra, and consumers have gradually gravitated toward them, Walters said.
Rexall’s decision comes as its sister company, General Nutrition Centers, has also pulled ephedra products from its shelves. Both companies are owned by Dutch baby-food conglomerate Royal Numico. Citing disappointing sales, Royal Numico put both companies up for sale in November. A sale is expected to be announced in the next month.
Royal Numico said it would take an $8.1 million write-off this year to account for the discontinued sales of ephedra products at Rexall.
Sales of Metab-O-LITE plunged by 38 percent last year to $26 million, according to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc.
Although ephedra products recently accounted for as much 10 percent of Rexall’s approximately $500 million in annual revenue, that percentage is now much smaller.
Ephedra supporters say the supplement unclogs bronchial passages, suppresses appetite and delivers a jolt of energy. Critics say it also causes heart palpitations, shortness of breath and sleeplessness.
U.S. poison control centers reported 1,178 adverse reactions to ephedra dietary supplements in 2001, according to a study this year published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Ephedra accounted for 64 percent of all adverse reactions involving herbs, even though it is found in fewer than 1 percent of all herbal products sold. The Food and Drug Administration has reports of nearly 100 deaths of people who had taken the herb.
The National Football League, National Collegiate Athletic Association and International Olympic Committee have banned the substance from use by their athletes.
The Bush administration began building the case for a possible ban of ephedra this spring by proposing strong new warning labels that the substance can cause heart attacks, strokes and even death. Such labels, blocked until now by the dietary supplement industry, could be on every bottle by year-end.