- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Recalled Gov. Gray Davis just can’t stop imposing big government liberalism on California on his way out the door. Among the many actions he has taken since being recalled, last week he added to the unnecessary regulatory burden on Californians by signing a bill banning dietary supplements containing ephedra.

Ephedra is, in fact, a natural substance derived from herbal plants that produce a chemical called ephedrine. The Chinese have used the herb for thousands of years to treat nasal and chest congestion arising from colds, the flu and asthma.

Today, about 12 million Americans take about 3 billion diet pills each year containing ephedra, which has been proven effective in reducing weight and cholesterol in clinical studies. Moreover, in 52 such scientific trials, there has not been one instance of a severe adverse reaction.

Many more Americans today take synthetic ephedra in a wide range of over-the-counter and prescription drugs to treat allergies, asthma and nasal and chest congestion. Such products, in fact, have been in use in America for about a century now, and they have been thoroughly vetted and approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

With so many people taking ephedra products, inevitably some will suffer serious illness or death from unrelated natural causes. Manufacturers of diet pills, indeed, are not serving a particularly healthy population.

A long-obese customer may finally turn to dieting too late, and suffer a stroke or heart attack after starting the diet regimen. His grieving family rushes to the medicine chest and finds the diet pills. The conclude it was the pills that caused his calamity. The same phenomenon occurs on a much larger scale with aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), and ibuprofen (Advil).

Based precisely on such reports, left-wing front groups like Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen have taken up a crusade to ban ephedra. Sophisticated consumers of political controversy know these groups are happy any time they can kill a company’s profitable business. It’s the profit they really want to ban, not ephedra.

Their effort was given an enormous PR boost when they were able to exploit the tragic death in spring training of 23-year-old Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler. But Bechler’s case was exactly like the hypothetical example described above.

Bechler’s spring training weight was listed at 249, up from 190 in 1998. But the day he died the hospital weighed him in at 320 pounds. He had a history of high blood pressure, which was found to have risen to extreme levels in a spring training medical exam. He also had a very rapid pulse and long-term liver disease.

Trying to prepare for high-level athletic competition in the Florida sun in this incredibly sick condition, he collapsed. Despite the application of ice packs, his temperature was 108 degrees upon admittance to the hospital. The official cause of death was heatstroke. To blame his death on the diet pills he was taking at the time requires an extreme case of excess political activism.

Extended scientific studies and reviews by the Rand Corp., the FDA, the National Institutes of Health, the General Accounting Office and others, have found no scientific support for the allegation that ephedra, again a natural herbal substance, causes serious adverse health problems. Moreover, they have found it is effective in causing weight loss by increasing metabolism.

Yet, because of overhyped events like Bechler’s tragic death, the FDA continues to study ephedra-based products. That in itself is not a problem. But the FDA seems interested in using the controversy to gain expanded regulatory authority over dietary supplements, including a possible national ban on ephedra.

But, while ephedra does not pose a serious health risk, obesity and excess weight do. The U.S. surgeon general reports 61 percent of all American adults are obese or overweight, resulting in 300,000 deaths each year. Denying a product to Americans that has been proven effective in addressing this top health problem is what would be harmful to the public health.

Moreover, the fundamental issue here is freedom of choice. So long as natural ephedra products do not cause unreasonable health risks, adults should be free to decide if they want to use them to help control their weight.

Millions of Americans are making precisely that choice today. That should be up to them, not Public Citizen, or Gov. Gray Davis, or some other self-appointed savior.

Peter Ferrara is director of the International Center for Law and Economics.

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