Local residents' opinions divided on Ephedra ban

January 17, 2004|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

Local fitness industry employees and workout buffs are divided on the use of dietary supplements containing Ephedra in the wake of the Food and Drug Administration's recent announcement that such products will be banned in 2004.

Several former users of the still-legal product interviewed at Gold's Gym in north Hagerstown said Ephedra-based products produce results such as reduced body fat and increased energy. Users' reactions to the substance varied widely.

Gym member Shawn Brown said the side effects of the product reminded him of those he experienced during grueling runs at boot camp during his stint in the military.


"My heart rate was off the charts," Brown said. "And once you come down from it, you feel like you're going to throw up. You're body is still going even if you don't want it to."

Others, including Total Fitness Specialists trainer Chad Smith, said they avoided side effects by drinking a lot of water, taking three-week breaks from using the substance and, especially, following the recommended dosage.

"I never had a problem with it because I used it responsible," said Smith, who used supplements while preparing for body-building contests. "Like anything, you have to consult a professional for advice on how to use it safely."

FDA on Ephedra

A February 2003 report released by the FDA said using products with Ephedra and mixing Ephedra with other substances such as caffeine produced vomiting, anxiety, changes in mood, hyperactivity, palpitations and up to a 300 percent increase in nausea in some users.

On Dec. 30, 2003, the FDA announced it will publish a ruling that supplements containing the substance pose an "unreasonable risk of illness or injury" for its users. An official nationwide ban of Ephedra-based products will become effective 60 days following the publishing of the ruling, the FDA said.

Ephedra, also called Ma huang, is a naturally occurring substance derived from plants. Products containing the substances have seen widespread marketing in recent years for weight loss, enhanced sports performance and increased energy, an FDA press release said.

Ephedra has been used in supplements including Stacker 2, Xenadrine and Hydroxycut. All three now offer Ephedra-free formulas.

Blamed for deaths

Ephedra came under fire in the last 21/2 years after the substances were linked to the deaths of several athletes nationwide. At lease two of were professionals - Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Korey Stringer and Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler. Both died during training camps, and it has been speculated that both exceeded the recommended dosage of the products they used.

Representatives of local retailers said the ban will have a dramatic negative impact on business and they believe the FDA ban is premature.

Tariq Anwar, owner of Vitamin Hut Natural Food in Fountain Head Plaza, said the ban is unfair. Vitamin Hut Natural Food is one of the stores in the area still stocking shelves with Ephedra-based products.

"We'll lose a lot of business," Anwar said. "It will hurt every retail business that sells Ephedra."

Anwar said he does not understand banning Ephedra before other substances deemed harmful, such as cigarettes, alcohol and some pain relievers.

"How many people die each year from aspirin or from smoking cigarettes? They (politicians) are just against alternative medicine," Anwar said. "Smoking cigarettes has killed a lot more people."

Avoiding lawsuits

Tom Sterrett, store manager of the General Nutrition Center on Pennsylvania Avenue in Hagerstown, used the same analogy.

GNC stores, both corporate and franchise-owned, were ordered by corporate officials to pull all products containing Ephedra from the shelves about six months ago, Sterrett said. He said company officials were worried about potential lawsuits in the wake of those in other parts of the country.

Sterrett said some consumers said they are getting good results from the alternative supplements that do not contain Ephedra and are carried at stores such as GNC. Still, Sterrett said the business has taken a noticeable "hit in the pocket" since pulling the items.

"I still have people who come in looking for it," he said.

Gold's Gym also pulled many of its popular nutritional drinks, such as Speed Stack and Ripped Force, containing the substance in 2003, Manager Dave Moss said.

"I can say we don't push as much product as we used to," Moss said. "It's a noticeable difference."

Moss, who used Ephedra-based products while a college student from 1996 to 1999, said he is baffled by the FDA's decision. Moss said the substance helped him stay alert during class and cut his body fat percentage without intolerable side effects because he used it as directed.

"Yeah, I'd get some heart palpitations and I'd sweat a little more than usual, but I get that same stuff when I'm drinking coffee," he said. "When you misuse any products, terrible things are going to happen."

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