Back In The Spotlight

The industry is back in the consumer spotlight. Starting with a Jane Brody article published in the February 11th Mercury News, followed last week by Suffolk County in Long Island banning outright the sale of ephedra products, this week, the pressure and focus intensified further.

First it was a study showing no effect of a diet high in anti-oxidants in affecting the onset of Alzheimer’s, followed successively by a Reuters story this past Tuesday about the unacceptable level of pregnant women not declaring to their physicians the supplements they were consuming, and a Doctor’s Guide article, which, while entitled ‘Herbal Medicines Can Be Toxic’, dealt with the issue of herb/ drug interactions and underreporting of herbal product consumption. And then finally, the baseball training camp tragedy where herbal supplements containing ephedra have become the center of investigation and media attention.

An Associated Press story appeared earlier this week, claiming once again that the FDA has no jurisdiction over the ‘unregulated’ industry, and other media selectively dealt with unscrupulous advertising, product safety records, toxicity and the lack of quality programs and processes as they splashed the dangers of supplements on front pages across North America. One news report even commented that Suffolk County had banned all dietary supplements while attempting to put the Bechler story into perspective.

More rational articles are refusing to allow baseball to place the blame exclusively on supplements, including an article Wednesday afternoon from Sports Illustrated (, which questions the strenuous spring training regimen and an ESPN story which delves into Bechler’s medical and heatstroke history as evidence that there were extenuating circumstances.

The damage though, has been done. The finger has been pointed, and all the past demons are being brought to light again and presented to a voracious audience. While the specific issue is ephedra, the entire dietary supplements industry will feel the impact – and there has to be a scapegoat.

And the past several months had been so quiet. Industry was waiting for the ‘imminent’ GMP’s, defeat on ephedra and kava safety issues had been grudgingly acknowledged by many, and the urgency of issues such as self-policing, proactive programs and united stance appeared to lose importance. The industry itself, the entire industry, not just the herbal companies, seemed to go back to business as usual, trying to recapture momentum lost several years ago.

To be sure, NSF, USP and continued their programs, but if anything, they were only grudgingly supported by an industry that wanted to be left alone to do as it had always done.

While realizing that it’s only the end of February, one wonders what happened to those promising words spoken in September and October about enabling the industry to proactively speak from a position of strength, and with a united and consolidated voice. It’s quite possible that behind the scenes, efforts at mobilizing the industry collective are proceeding and that any day now, self-administered guidelines will emerge along with a set of rules, standards and voluntary reporting procedures to be adhered to by leading companies across the value chain. But behind the scenes isn’t enough – not now.

To put the issue into perspective, following are sample headlines greeting consumers each morning and night:

“A Deadly Trend” San Diego Union Tribune
Because they’re legal doesn’t mean they’re safe
“Dietary Drug Ephedrine Linked to Health Hazards” Associated Press
(This is the article claiming that ephedra, as a dietary supplement, is not regulated by the FDA)
“Pitcher’s death focuses attention on risks of herbal supplement” (South Carolina picking up a Boston Globe story)

In fact an international wire service, in a search Wednesday for ‘ephedra’, displays the following:

  • Autopsy links ephedra to Bechler's stroke / 14:46
  • Pitcher's death tied to ephedra diet pill / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 13:58
  • Baseball player's death renews debate over ephedra / San Francisco Chronicle 11:15
  • Pitcher's death tied to ephedra / New York Daily News 09:10
  • Washington Is Where Debate on Ephedra Belongs /, New York 08:46
  • Call for ephedra ban renewed / Baltimore Sun 08:20
  • Pitcher's death may have ephedra link / The Indianapolis Star 07:12
  • Death of Baltimore pitcher raises concerns around baseball camps about ephedra / Florida Today 06:43
  • Rockies don't encourage use of ephedra / The Philadelphia Inquirer, Pennsylvania 02:59
  • Ephedra suspected in Bechler's death / Sports Network 23:37 18-Feb-03
  • Contessa Waits on Results of Ephedra Positives / 18:59 18-Feb-03
  • Sixth Contessa horse positive for ephedra / ESPN 17:29 13-Feb-03
  • Sixth Contessa horse tests positive for ephedra / Thoroughbred Times 03:52 13-Feb-03
  • Suffolk Oks Ephedra Ban / New York Post 09:13 12-Feb-03
  • The Smith Report: Is ephedra dangerous? / New York Daily News 09:04 11-Feb-03
  • Risky ephedra / San Diego Union-Tribune, California 14:53 10-Feb-03
  • Trainer Contessa Awaits Word on Ephedra Positives / 12:27 10-Feb-03
  • Controversy weighs heavy on ephedra / San Diego Union-Tribune, California 21:38 9-Feb-03
  • Ephedra deadlier than thought: docs / San Francisco Examiner 17:22 5-Feb-03
  • Study: Limits needed for ephedra, an herb linked to deaths / Billings Gazette, Montana 10:02 5-Feb-03
  • Another report condemns ephedra / The Indianapolis Star 07:27 5-Feb-03
  • Yet another warning against ephedra / Washington Times 06:24 5-Feb-03
  • Restriction Or Ban Of Ephedra Supported By First Comparative Herbal... / - Natural Products Industry Center 15:32 4-Feb-03
  • Study advises limits for herb ephedra / CNN 13:59 4-Feb-03
  • Study: Ephedra unsafe / USA Today 13:21 4-Feb-03
  • Study recommends limits for ephedra, an herb linked to deaths / Billings Gazette, Montana 08:05 4-Feb-03
  • Study calls for limiting ephedra stimulant / Florida Today 07:08 4-Feb-03
  • Ephedra is judged unsafe even in doses listed on containers / Saint Louis Post Dispatch 06:55 4-Feb-03
  • Ephedra Safety Questioned / Medical Breakthroughs 05:00 4-Feb-03
  • Study recommends limits for ephedra, a herb linked to deaths / 02:10 4-Feb-03
  • After studying adverse effects, doctors recommend restrictions on ephedra / The Island Packet, South Carolina 01:28 4-Feb-03
  • Ephedra Has More Side Effects Than Other Herbs / Reuters 22:42 3-Feb-03
  • Doctors Recommend Restrictions on Ephedra / 22:26 3-Feb-03
  • Study Urges Limits For Ephedra Herb Linked To Deaths / Nasdaq 22:20 3-Feb-03
  • Restriction or ban of ephedra supported by first comparative herbal study / EurekAlert! 22:18 3-Feb-03
  • Study Recommends Restrictions on Ephedra / 22:18 3-Feb-03

Searches for dietary supplements show similar patterns, so we can well understand the message reaching consumers.

Few believe there’s an easy or one-dimensional solution. Fundamentally, most likely believe a united stand and self policing and administration is required in addition to a strong statement - but the short term pressures of business, competition and the marketplace seem to always get in the way.

Our lull is over. Industry reshaping has begun. One can’t help but feel that a precious opportunity has been lost, a chance to show that the mainstream supplements industry has its act not only together, but is committed to a safe and science based future.

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