Ephedra taken off area shelves

By Clay Wilson

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced this week that it will ban sales of the herbal diet supplement ephedra within a few months.

A local dietitian said she supports the ban, while a national health products chain with several area stores said they have already removed ephedra from their shelves.

The FDA announced the pending ban on Tuesday. Also called ma huang, ephedra has been used for several years for weight-loss and in bodybuilding. According to published reports, the herb acts as a stimulant similar to amphetamines.

Federal officials, though, say ephedra can be dangerous. "Ephedra raises your blood pressure and stresses your system, leading to heart attacks, strokes and death," the Associated Press quoted FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan.

According to the AP, the herbal supplement has been linked to 155 deaths and dozens of heart attacks and strokes.

Stores will not be required to stop selling ephedra until at least March, the AP said, but federal officials have encouraged consumers to stop buying it and stores to stop selling it.

At least one national supplement retailer beat the government to the punch.

According to a press release from General Nutrition Centers, that company discontinued the sale of ephedra-based products in June. GNC, which according to the release is "the nation's largest specialty retailer of nutritional supplements," has nine stores in Clayton and Henry counties.

The press release said that the chain pulled ephedra products to respond "to consumer demands for ephedra-free dietary supplements."

However, a management official at the GNC Southlake Mall store said, "We (pulled ephedra products) in advance of anything that was going on with the government. I think we knew the government was going to do it."

At Southside Fitness in Hampton, owner Belinda Pryor said that facility is ephedra-free.

"None of our products that we use have any kind of ephedra," she said.

Pryor, who said she's been in the fitness business for four years, said she's never even known anyone who used the herbal supplement. She also said the upcoming government ban hasn't seemed to cause much of a stir at the center.

"It doesn't seem to be an issue around here. Since all the news broke, no one's even said anything about it," she said.

But Henry Medical Center's Carol Stringer said she has known people who used ephedra. One of the hospital's registered dietitians, Stringer said some of her patients have used the herb.

She said she doesn't know of any confirmed cases of problems caused by ephedra.

"I've had people state that they've had heart flutterings, but that's not something you can say was caused by ephedra, because it wasn't diagnosed as that," she said.

Still, Stringer said she thinks the government's ban is "a good thing."

Like all herbal supplements, she said, the making of ephedra is unregulated by the government. Consequently, different manufacturers may produce different dosages and potencies.

"The problem with any of the herbs is that they are not regulated by the FDA, so dose-to-dose, batch-to-batch – you never know how much you're getting," she said.

According to the AP, ephedra is the first herbal supplement banned by the FDA. A 1994 law requires the agency to prove that a supplement is harmful in order to have it banned, rather than for manufacturers to prove the product is safe to have it approved, as with prescription drugs.

Ephedra product manufacturers contend that their supplements are safe when used properly, the AP reported.

But Stringer remains leery. "I think (herbal supplements) have a place in medicine, but until they're regulated it's not safe," she said.

Rather than putting their faith in wonder drugs, Stringer recommended that most people who are trying to lose weight stick to the tried-and-true method:

"Eat less, exercise more," she said. "Bottom line, that's what you're supposed to do. It's a healthy thing ?"