by Walter M. Brasch
American Reporter Correspondent
March 25, 2004
FDA'S EPHEDRA BAN A PROBLEM FOR MANY
BLOOMSBURG, Pa. -- Outside, on dry-erase boards hung on corner windows of the Dynamic Health Center on the main street of Bloomsburg, a small rural town in northeastern Pennsylvania, are two signs. On one, in scrawled letters, is the warning: "Less than 60 Days to Buy Epehedra Pre-Paid While Supplies Last." On the other, customers are advised to "Stock Up. April 12th is Last day to Buy Ephedra. Taking Pre-Paid Orders Now While Supplies Last."
Inside, owner Julian Wahly is mad. Not the kind of mad when a customer stiffs him, but mad at a government he believes is reaching into his cash till and stealing what he says is a legitimate way to make money. "I think it's a bunch of crap," Wahly says about the decision by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to ban over-the-counter sales of Ephedra, an herb which can help suppress the appetite leading to weight loss while giving an energy boost, not unlike a "sugar kick."
Ephedrine, the chemical name, also known as ma huang, is derived from a shrub-like bush found in Asian deserts. For almost seven centuries it has been used to treat various kinds of colds and breathing difficulties. It is related to the safer pseudoephedrine used in several antihistamines. However, as a weight loss supplement and energy booster, Ephedra became popular in American culture during the 1990s.
Products containing ephedrine may still be ordered by prescription; herbalists and other health care practitioners may still use it in their practices. The walk-in customer, however, won't be able to purchase it.
Wahly says about 20-30 percent of his business is from sales of Ephedra and related products. In the past couple of weeks, it's been closer to 40 percent. A bottle of 100 pills costs about $20-$40. Customers are buying as much as a year's supply before the deadline, says Wahly. Who buys it? "Everyone!" he says without the slightest hesitation. "Everyone buys it." Everyone is about 15-20 million people a year. Wahly is one of them.
"I've been using it six years," he says, and proudly points out he has had "no problems with it." He says he uses it for the energy boost and for weight loss.
"Students buy it to stay up late," he says, guessing they use it as a study aid. They may also use it to survive late-night parties in a town in which Bloomsburg University is the largest employer.
Student athletes, although forbidden to use Ephedra, still buy it, figuring the random testing procedures won't target them. The International Olympic Committee banned Ephedra in 1993; the National Collegiate Athletic Association banned it four years later. The NFL and NBA also ban it. However, Major League Baseball banned it in the minor leagues but not in the majors.
The students who aren't using Ephedra for what they think is an energy boost are using it to lose weight. For pubescent and college-age women, appearances are just about everything. And, some magic potion that can help them become rail-model thin and alluring to the opposite sex is just what they think they need. For them, Ephedra has been a better alternative than sniffing antihistamines.
"Third-shift people!" says Wahly. "Guards and third-shift people buy Ephedra. It keeps them alert," he says. "It's a safe, alternative to the use of steroids," he declares without the trace of disbelief. The FDA disagrees.
The FDA's decision, based upon several years of testing and some high profile deaths, is the first time it has banned a dietary supplement. The FDA reports more than 16,000 "incidents" of severe side effects in the past decade. The Annals of Internal Medicine reported that although products containing ephedrine are less than 1 percent of dietary supplements, they account for almost two-thirds of serious side effects. Those side effects include heart attacks and strokes.
Korey Stringer, a Minnesota Vikings lineman, died unexpectedly during practice camp in 2001. Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler died of heat stroke in 2003. Both, trying to lose weight, used products containing Ephedra. The problem isn't the supplement, Wahly claims.
Bechler took five pills, he says, and was wearing extra layers of clothing. Of the 155 documented deaths attributed to Ephedra, Wahly says those are only "supposed" deaths. "It's what the government claims," he says, believing the deaths were probably just "a misuse of the herb." The labels point out that the proper dosage is one or two a day, but customers often take more, counting on even better weight loss assistance or a stronger energy boost from the temporary increase in blood pressure and heart rate.
"A woman can do what she wants with her body," Wahly says. "If she wants to have an abortion, she can," he says. Just warming up, he points to aspirin. "Look at all the side effects from aspirin," he says. "They don't ban aspirin!" With hardly a breath, he nearly shouts, "Cigarettes. Cigarettes kill. The government says it, but they don't ban cigarettes." About 400,000 premature deaths a year are attributed to cigarette effects, but local, state, and the federal government all collect taxes from cigarette sales, and the tobacco industry is one of the more powerful lobbying groups.
Across the street is As Nature Intended. Owner Elisa Zimmerman says she doesn't carry Ephedra-related products, "primarily because I never believed it was used properly, so I shied away from it." However, if a customer wanted it, she ordered it. "Only when there was a special order and the customer didn't pick it up was it ever on the shelves," she says.
Wahly says that some of Zimmerman's customers walk the 25 feet to his store to get Ephedra. He understands why As Nature Intended never sold Ephedra, although he doesn't agree with the reasons. He doesn't understand why other health food stores discontinued selling Ephedra long before the FDA ban takes effect. "GNC wimped out last year," he says. "They're supposed to be the leader, and they wimped out."
Three miles away, in a low-traffic mall, is one of General Nutirition Company's 5,300 retail stores.
"A lot of people come in looking for it," says clerk Lindsay McAndrews, an exercise science major at Bloomsburg University, "but we tell them we don't carry it." The customers understand, says McAndrews - "they'll get it off the Internet or somewhere else."
Last July, GNC - the largest retailer of nutritional supplements - discontinued all products containing Ephedra. "We believe that Ephedra-based products are safe when used as directed," said Michael K. Meyers, the CEO of the Pittsburgh-based retailer, who also pointed to a financial reality.
"The current business climate dictates that we move in a different direction," he was quoted in a company press release. That different direction yielded Total Lean, an Ephedra-free supplement that GNC claims aids weight loss while giving an energy boost.
But: it's not Ephedra. Unlike most other store owners the past year who are carrying alternatives, Wahly says he refuses to sell alternatives. "They don't do the job," he says. He believes the FDA may target other OTC products.
"If this keeps up," says Wahly, "I won't be in business." At the end of March, Dynamic Health Center was the only store in about a 50-mile radius that sold Ephedra without a prescription. By April 12, there will be none.
Walter Brasch's latest book is a witty and probing look at the mass media, Sex and the Single Beer Can. You may reach Dr. Brasch at email@example.com. Visit his web site at www.walterbrasch.com