Archive for Thursday, May 29, 2003

Deadly but legal

Ephedra unrestricted yet hard to find in Kansas

May 29, 2003


Last week, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a bill that banned in-state sales of ephedra, a herbal supplement linked to more than 100 deaths nationwide.

Flanked by the parents of a 16-year-old football player who died last year after taking ephedra, Blagojevich called on other states to impose similar bans.

"With enough commitment," Blagojevich said, "this ban can sweep through state legislatures across America and sweep this product right off the shelf."

Illinois was the first state to ban the sale of ephedra. At least 21 other states have regulations affecting supplements containing ephedra. Kansas does not.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' office said she was "concerned" and wanted to know more about the Illinois ban.

"We're looking into it," said Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran-Basso.

Although not illegal in Kansas, it is virtually impossible to find products containing ephedra on store shelves in Lawrence. In fact, most pills and liquids now available that promise to enhance performance or promote weight loss tout that they are ephedra-free.

Walgreens, for example, recently purged its stores of ephedra.

"Nationwide, we are no longer selling ephedra products," said Michael Polzin, a national spokesman for Walgreens. "We pulled nearly all of it about three months ago. The last remaining product left the shelves about two weeks ago."

Despite being banned in illinois and regulated in 21 other states,
ephedra is still legal in Kansas. The herbal supplement has been
linked to more than 100 deaths nationwide.

Despite being banned in illinois and regulated in 21 other states, ephedra is still legal in Kansas. The herbal supplement has been linked to more than 100 deaths nationwide.

Ephedra was partly to blame for the 2001 death of Northwestern University football player Radishi Wheeler and Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, who died during spring training in February.

If Dr. Larry Magee, director of sports medicine at Kansas University, had his way, ephedra would have been placed on illegal status long ago.

"The NCAA banned it a couple years ago, so we've banned it, too," Magee said. "It's a dangerous substance. It's something we feel can harm our athletes."

KU athletes who test positive for the supplement are subject to the same penalties as those who test positive for other banned substances, Magee said.

Both the National Basketball Association and National Football League have banned ephedra.

David Cherry, an assistant administrator at the Kansas High School Activities Association, said the association discourages school personnel from recommending, handling or distributing supplements.

"Does that make them illegal? No, it doesn't," he said.

As yet, the KHSHAA hasn't banned the use of ephedra, Cherry said, noting that it follows the lead of the U.S. Olympic Committee and the National Federation of High School Associations.

"If the Olympic committee has banned it, I haven't heard about it," he said. "The big NFHSA meeting is in June. I suspect we'll hear about it then."

Cherry said enforcing a ban on ephedra would be difficult because the KSHSAA lacks the authority and money to test athletes for drugs.

The American Medical Society and the American Heart Association have all called for a ban on dietary supplements containing ephedra.

"I don't know that a medical use has been found for ephedra," Magee said. "It's an amphetamine-type of drug. It's a stimulant. It increases heart rate. It increases anxiety. But I haven't seen anything in the way of a scientific study that says it increases (athletic) performance.

"For some, it may increase weight loss, but it does it in a dangerous way."

Two years ago, Wichita lawyer Andy Hutton sued the makers of ephedra-based supplement Ripped Fuel on behalf of Shane Garrett, then 22, who suffered a heart attack while lifting weights at a health club in 1998. Friends said Garrett drank a bottle of Ripped Fuel shortly before starting his workout.

Unable to breathe for several minutes, Garrett suffered significant brain damage.

A jury found Garrett and the manufacturer equally negligent. The case is now on appeal to the Kansas Supreme Court.

"Banning ephedra is a wise and needed move," Hutton said. "Illinois did the right thing. Kansas should follow suit."

Under the new Illinois law, selling ephedra supplements in the state is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. Repeat offenders could face up to five years in jail and a $20,000 fine.

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