Health advocates have been calling on the federal government for more than a year to ban dietary supplements containing ephedra alkaloids, the herbal compounds that may have played a role in the death Monday of Orioles pitching prospect Steve Bechler.
"The government's failure to ban products containing ephedrine showed extraordinary political cowardice," Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe, director of the Public Citizen Health Research Group, said yesterday. "There are more reports of deaths, heart attacks, seizures and dangerous effect from these products than from all other dietary supplements combined."
He said ephedra supplements have been associated with more than 100 deaths, including more than 30 in the military.
In 1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration first proposed setting limits on the amount of ephedra alkaloids in products. But the proposal was withdrawn after critics said the limits were not scientifically justified.
In September 2001, Wolfe's Health Research Group petitioned the FDA to ban products containing ephedra, a class of natural, amphetamine-like substances found in plants. One form of ephedra is called ephedrine and is found in Xenadrine, the weight-loss supplement Bechler reportedly was taking three times a day.
But in June, Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, instead ordered a Rand Corp. review of the research on the safety of the compounds. Wolfe lambasted the decision, saying it was irresponsible not to at least warn consumers of the dangers.
Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of neurosurgery at West Virginia University, reported last year that increasing use of supplements containing ephedrine and another compound, creatine, might be responsible for a surge in heatstroke-related deaths of football players in recent years.
"We advise athletes to discontinue use of all supplements before beginning training," Bailes said last night.