For about $25, anyone can buy a 200-tablet jar of "Ripped Fuel," an over-the-counter supplement that's supposed to burn off unwanted pounds. It comes in liquid form, too.
General Nutrition Center, 520 W. 23rd, sells it. So do Walgreen's and Lawrence Athletic Club.
But you won't find it at Sixth Street Fitness, 2500 W. Sixth St.
"I hate this stuff," said the gym's owner Brent Anderson.
Anderson jogs from eight to 10 miles a week, works out almost every day and watches what he eats. He's physically fit.
But when he tried a bottle of "Ripped Force," a liquid form of "Ripped Fuel," his heart rate jumped from 68 beats per minute to 91 beats per minute and that was before the workout.
He started sweating, too, even though he wasn't hot.
"That was my individualized reaction," Anderson said. "I'm not saying someone else would have the same reaction because it's going to depend on the individual. But that's my point: You don't know what that reaction is going to be."
And it may be a deadly reaction.
Users have complained that ingesting the supplement has led to high blood pressure, dizziness even heart attack and stroke. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration suspects it as a contributing factor in about 80 deaths nationwide.
Extracted from plants native to Mongolia and China, ephedra also known as ma huang is a naturally occurring stimulant. By increasing a user's metabolism, it does, in fact, cause weight loss.
The warning label on an 18-ounce bottle of "Ripped Force" recommends taking no more than 100 milligrams a day for no more than 12 weeks.
"But few adults will take 100 milligrams a day," said Shane Smith, manager of the General Nutrition Center store. A 20-milligram tablet, he said, "really wires you. I don't know anybody who takes more than three or four a day."
A single 18-ounce bottle of "Ripped Force" contains 20 milligrams of ephedra.
The FDA wants to limit the recommended usage of ephedra to no more than 24 milligrams a day, for no more than seven days.
A year ago, the FDA began posting complaints it received about products containing ephedra on its Web site: www.fda.gov. At last count, the site had logged more than 1,400 complaints, including reports of heart attacks, dizziness, nervousness, high blood pressure and "feeling as if 'eyes exploding out of head.'"
Ephedra is suspected in the deaths of about 80 users, said an FDA spokeswoman who insisted on not being identified because, she said, agency policy forbids it.
"There is no way to predict" whether the new dosages will be approved or when they would take effect, the spokeswoman said.
Limited FDA oversight
Most products containing ephedra are considered diet supplements and are subject only to limited FDA oversight.
The FDA is paying close attention to a lawsuit filed in Wichita by Ron and Brenda Garrett, whose then-22-year-old son, Shane, suffered a heart attack March 31, 1998, during a weight-lifting routine at Genesis Health Club.
According to Shane Garrett's friends, he often drank a bottle of "Ripped Force" before and during his six-days-a-week workouts.
During his heart attack, Shane Garrett was unable to breathe for several minutes. The subsequent lack of oxygen caused significant brain damage.
"Shane will never be employed again that's unequivocal," said Andy Hutton, an attorney with Hutton and Hutton, the Wichita law firm representing the Garretts.
"This happened three years ago and, basically, he's made all the improvement he's going to make," he said. "He's now functionally illiterate, he can't make change. It's pretty sad. He requires constant supervision."
A trial is scheduled to begin in May. Hutton wouldn't say how much the family is seeking in excess of the standard $75,000. But the Hutton firm rarely takes cases that don't promise multimillion-dollar returns.
$12 million award
Last month, an Anchorage, Alaska, jury awarded a woman $12 million after determining a weight-loss product containing ephedra caused her to suffer a stroke in 1995.
Todd Crowley is legal counsel for Weider Nutrition Group Inc., the company that makes the "Ripped Force" drink. He said ephedra was getting a bad rap.
"The same FDA Web sites that say ephedra is so dangerous also says adverse reactions to aspirin cause 16,500 deaths a year, and yet there's no hue and cry to take aspirin off the market," Crowley said in a telephone interview from his office in Salt Lake City.
And the label, he said, clearly states that "Ripped Force" is not for anyone with heart problems, high blood pressure or diabetes.
The label also says, "Not for long-term use. Not for use by persons under the age of 18."
Crowley said Weider Nutrition Group's ephedra products are diet supplements and "like anything else" are not to be abused.
"To supplement your diet with iron, for example, is beneficial. But if taken in excess," he said, "iron is toxic. The same is true for Vitamin A, Vitamin E or B-12.
"And like these other supplements," he said, "ephedra should be used wisely."
Within this context, Crowley said, ephedra is "incredibly effective in helping people lose weight."
Not true weight loss
It's true, said Lynn Quiring, pharmacist at The Medicine Shoppe, 1807 Mass., that ephedra does trigger weight loss.
But is it the right kind of weight loss?
No, Quiring said.
"Ephedra does make your heart beat faster and it'll make your blood pressure go up, which means you're burning calories and, in effect, losing weight," he said. "But artificially stimulating the nervous system is the clearly wrong way to lose weight."
Sixth Street Fitness' Anderson said he knows people who've used ephedra to lose 10 pounds in 10 days.
"It can be done," he said. "But the problem is that you can't stay on it, and when you go off, you put on more than you took off. If you lost 10 pounds, you'll put 15 back on.
"I know people don't like to hear this, but when it goes to losing weight and getting fit, there aren't any shortcuts."