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DIET HERB EPHEDRA TO BE BANNED IN U.S.

Byline: Evan Pondel Staff Writer

U.S. regulators are banning the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedra, the controversial herbal weight-loss product that has been linked to the death of a professional baseball player.

The decision comes after an extensive study involving more than 16,000 reports of adverse side effects from products containing ephedra, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

``Today's action tells consumers that the time to stop using these products is now,'' Thompson said Tuesday in announcing the government's first ban of a dietary supplement. ``They are simply too risky to be used, whether by people who want to lose weight or by elite athletes seeking to enhance their performance, or by youngsters who want to be like these athletes.''

The ban will take effect 60 days after a federal rule is formally published in a few weeks. Approximately 155 deaths have been blamed on the product that generated attention last February when Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler died of heat stroke.

The plant-derived supplement's effectiveness in burning fat has created a multimillion-dollar niche. Companies have touted ephedra's efficacy, while doctors and dietitians have dubbed it ``legalized speed'' because it quickens the heart rate and constricts blood vessels.

Thompson said the decision arrives at an appropriate time as some people have put on extra weight during the holidays and ``they'll be looking for ways to lose (it) in the coming weeks and months and making resolutions to that effect.''

Natrol, a nutritional-supplement company in Chatsworth with annual revenues topping $70 million, stopped manufacturing ephedra products a few years ago. However, such products could still be purchased as of last March through Natrol's subsidiary Prolab.

Elliott Balbert, Natrol's president and chief executive officer, supported the government's ability to ban dietary supplements, although he said ephedra is ``absolutely safe and a help'' when used properly. Natrol began marketing Ma huang, a Chinese herbal supplement that contains ephedra, almost two decades ago.

But the company stopped manufacturing the product for economic reasons and ``weight loss was not something we wanted to address,'' Balbert said. As for the government's decision to ban ephedra, ``there has to be a sacrificial cow and this is the one (product) that has to do it.''

The company currently sells an ephedra-free product called Fat Burner.

Many companies and athletic governing bodies have already put a moratorium on ephedra. General Nutrition Companies stopped selling ephedra products eight months ago, while the substance has been banned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Football League and the International Olympic Committee.

Evan Pondel, (818) 713-3662

evan.pondel(at)dailynews.com
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Dec 31, 2003
Words:436
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