People resolving in 2004 to lose weight won't be able to rely much longer on a popular herbal amphetamine-like stimulant the Bush administration announced Tuesday was being banned.
Federal officials not only said that ephedra can no longer be sold in weight-loss supplements starting early next year, they strongly urged consumers to stop taking the product immediately because of unacceptable health risks.
The decision marks the first time the federal government will have outlawed a dietary supplement, even though three states — New York, Illinois and California — have already banned over-the-counter sales of ephedra.
Utahns have mixed feelings about the decision.
"There will be a lot of disappointment," said Katie Gibson of American Fitness Wholesalers, a Salt Lake City distributor of supplements to gyms and health food stores. "All of us said, 'Oh, no!' when we heard the news because we buy 20 cases each. We already have non-ephedra products, but people won't have a choice. They'll have to take something without ephedra."
The ban won't take effect immediately because federal rules require paperwork steps that, according to the Associated Press, mean the soonest it could be put in place is March. The Food and Drug Administration, however, put 62 companies on notice Tuesday that it intends to shut them down.
Grant Hilton, training director for the Metro Sports Club at ZCMI Center mall, said even though he's taken ephedra he doesn't recommend it to his clients.
"The problem we have in dieting and exercise is we see that we make some progress with a small amount of exercise and diet pills, so we think if we do more or take more it will give us better results," Hilton said. "That's when we start seeing healthy people have heart attacks."
Ephedra is a Chinese herb used in many diet supplements and is a stimulant similar to caffeine. It increases the user's heart and metabolic rates, thereby increasing the number of calories burned in a day.
The Ephedra Education Council believes the ban is unnecessary and maintains that the product is safe if consumers will stick to dosage recommendations and buy only those supplements that clearly identify the amount of ephedra they contain.
But the consumer advocacy group, Public Citizen, has been petitioning the government for a ban since 2001, when the FDA had reports of 81 deaths, a number that has since climbed to 155, according to the Associated Press. The wire service said the agency also has reports of more than 16,000 health complaints from ephedra users.
The FDA has been warning consumers of chest pain, stroke, seizures and even death as possible ephedra side effects for almost 10 years.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a lead author of a law that provided a framework for the FDA to remove harmful substances from the market, praised the action taken Tuesday.
"I am not an advocate for ephedra," he said in a prepared statement. "While literally millions of servings appear to have been consumed safely, significant concerns have been raised in a few cases. If the FDA has scientifically determined this poses an unreasonable risk to public health, then it is correct in proceeding with this regulation."
Even some ephedra users acknowledge the potential danger of taking too much.
Last summer, the controversy around ephedra intensified after the death of Steve Bechler, a 23-year-old pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles. Although Bechler had been using the drug, ephedra advocates countered the athlete was overweight and strenuously exercising in hot weather.
That incident prompted many supplement manufacturers to stop using ephedra in their products and caused stores to pull the pills from their shelves.
Several dietary supplement manufacturers in Utah County said Monday they either have never used ephedra or ceased including it in products.
Steven Anreder, spokesman for Provo-based Nature's Sunshine, said company officials started minimizing the use of ephedra in their products after the Bechler controversy.
"We are working on new formulations. . . . We anticipated this and were already moving in that direction, so we are in good shape," Anreder said.
Ben Jolley, community relations specialist for Nuways in Springville, said the company has never used ephedra in any of its personal care or nutritional products — even its dietary supplement line.
At Complete Packaging & Manufacturing in Orem, ephedra was used at one point in supplements the company made for other businesses, but the ingredient was dropped this past summer.
"We haven't sold any ephedra since July for liability reasons," said Lindsay Willey, assistant manager of GNC in Foothill. "As far as I know, a lot of companies stopped carrying ephedra at the same time. It's not worth the risk."
Read Ochsenbein, owner of Harvest Health Foods in Ogden, said only a handful of dietary supplements continue to contain ephedra.
"We were hurt more last year than we will be by this," he said. "We used to sell four to six bottles a day of Xenadrine when it had ephedra. Now, we sell about four bottles of it a week," now that Xenadrine no longer contains the herb.
Ochsenbein said he believes the health risks associated with ephedra stem from misuse.
"It is one of those products that if it is used properly, I do not think it is as risky as most people think. Anytime you overdo anything, whether it is aspirin or ephedra, you are going to have problems."
In advance of the ban, some manufacturers of ephedra products were urging consumers to stock up, warning that the diet pills would be available for only a limited time.
One product's Web site on Monday advertised a 40 percent discount on its price with a "stock up" sale encouraging mass purchases.
Manufacturers, aware that the federal government was taking steps to implement the ban, have been urging ephedra consumers to speak out against the action, which they will likely challenge in court.