The renewed controversy over ephedra, the herbal supplement implicated in the death of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, sent me poring over reams of paper I’ve accumulated about the safety of this popular weight-loss and athletic-enhancing substance.
Florida has been far from immune. Bechler died after collapsing during a workout at training camp in Fort Lauderdale, and his is certainly not the first death in the state linked to the supplement.
The March 1996 death of a 20-year-old man in Panama City after taking an overdose of a product containing ephedrine sent state regulatory agencies into a tailspin.
The Florida Department of Agriculture announced that it was banning the sale of supplements “containing relatively high levels of ephedrine” and said it was sending out inspectors to visit stores “known or thought to be selling the products.”
These inspectors can we see a phalanx of such people swooping into establishments with capital E’s on their chests? were to issue “stop sale orders… as these herbal supplements containing ephedrine constitute adulterated and mislabeled food products.”
I’m quoting directly from a 1996 press release.
Though the state had its heart in the right place, it had nowhere near the number of inspectors to do such a search, and the outrage soon faded, despite accumulating evidence that ephedra-containing products were linked to nearly 100 deaths nationally.
Products containing the adrenaline-like stimulant can quicken a person’s heart rate and have potentially dangerous effects on the nervous system.
Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, recognized the potential danger and widespread availability of ephedra-containing products early on. It has called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration a couple of times to ban the dietary supplement.
The International Olympic Committee, the National Football League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association already prohibit the use of ephedra, and Florida has supported a national restriction on ephedra through the FDA, which is considering imposition of stringent warning labels, and a possible ban.
Other ways of dealing with the herb call for regulating it as a prescription drug. The Ephedra Education Council, an industry group, supports careful regulation but opposes an outright ban. “16,000 deaths a year can be attributed to the misuse of aspirin,” it said in a recent statement, “but that does not mean aspirin should be banned.”
That outlines an important point. Many deaths linked to ephedra are said to be due to overdoses, where consumers took more of the product than is recommended. This was the case with the illegal use Oxycodone, a prescription painkiller, that killed more than pain when it was misused.
Banning human stupidity is impossible.
But controlling access to potentially dangerous substances, plus educating or warning consumers of the risks they could face, is doable and long overdue with ephedra.