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EARTHWATCH

Natural Remedies : The growing awareness of herbs keeps the owners of a 20-year-old Ventura mail-order company hopping.

February 06, 1992|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Herbs are in the news these days. Environmentalists are sounding alarms about forest destruction, pointing out that when we lose the forest, we lose an important source of herbs. Consumers, battered by rising health costs, are turning their attention to natural remedies.

In coming weeks, federal officials will announce new regulations on sales pitches and the labeling of herbs. And Hollywood has a new movie entitled "Medicine Man," in which a rare herb co-stars with Sean Connery.

In Ventura County, too, the herbs are with us. More specifically, they are in the inventory of a Ventura-based mail-order company, Earth Herbs, owned by Betty and Tom Tropper. And all these national and global developments, the Troppers say, are keeping them hopping.

Earth Herbs has been operating in Ventura for 20 years, the last six under the ownership of the Troppers. The growing awareness of herbs, they say, brings both good news and bad for them.

"People have been reading about herbs in books, so they're aware of various kinds of natural healing," Betty Tropper told me. Those people, she added, seem upset with the rising cost of medical treatment and are interested in basics.

By basics, she means generic herbs and teas. The Troppers' catalogue, which they say has generated orders from 50 states, offers those substances with a disclaimer: "It is not our intent to diagnose or prescribe the use of herbs as a form of treatment. When any troublesome condition persists or in case of serious illness, it is suggested you see your physician."

But with reports in the news that certain periwinkles from the rain forest have been processed into cancer treatment drugs by major companies, many consumers are likely to look at herbs in a new light.

Even Gordon Cragg, chief of the National Cancer Institute's natural products branch, has been quoted as saying that "natural products provide the best chance for the discovery of novel structures for the development of new (healing) agents."

There is, of course, some history behind all of this. Until the 1960s, U. S. drug companies had large research efforts devoted to herb-based substances, but then moved on to microorganisms and synthetics. Herbs fell out of fashion.

Now, the whipsaw effect of rising medical costs and environmental threats to sources of herbs have brought herbs back to popular attention. As herbal business activity has increased, federal officials say they have noticed a lot of claims being made for herbal products that might not be true. Hence, the Food and Drug Administration's plans to unveil new regulations to control labeling and claims later this month.

Betty Tropper is among those hoping that the FDA will tread lightly, but not certain that it will. Still, she said, the family business "won't be impacted directly because we don't label." And since the firm does little advertising, she said, increased restrictions on claims "won't be a problem."

The American Botanical Council, a scholarly body that keeps track of the herb industry, isn't so sanguine. Spokesman Michael Blumenthal said he expects the rules to be too strict.

"The FDA wants (herb) companies to meet a drug-like standard of evidence before they can make a claim," Blumenthal told me. "They require so much absolute proof that even 40 years of fiber research is not enough for the FDA."

While we're on the subject of herbs and science, a word about periwinkles.

Before the discovery of the healing powers of a species of rosy periwinkle, children with leukemia had only a 20% chance of remission. Modern drug companies, researching native medicines in the rain forest, discovered a way to process the key substance in the flower, producing a drug that can result in 90% remission rates, according to the FDA. None of this would have been possible, of course, if the rain forest had already been destroyed and the modern scientific community had ignored the stories the forest tribes told about a certain flower.

So it happens that the Troppers have some allies in unexpected quarters on the subject of herbs and their uses.

The large pharmaceutical firms such as Merck (the biggest in the world), Bristol Myers and small ones such as Shaman are pressing the case for taking seriously the herbal practices of folk medicine and primitive peoples. These firms are backing environmental projects like the Rainforest Alliance and the Healing Forest Conservancy to encourage the collection and usage of herbal knowledge.

Even Procter & Gamble has gotten into the act, paying for a study guide about herbs pegged to the "Medicine Man" feature.

"I don't think of it as a fad," Betty Tropper said in assessing all these herbal developments the other day. "People keep on going to the doctor, and they're not getting the answers they want."

HERBS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

* Earth Herbs catalogue of bulk herbs and teas: 659-5158.

* For information on the Healing Forest Conservancy, call (415) 637-1800, D. S. R. King. And for the Rainforest Alliance reserve effort focused on herbs, known as "The Periwinkle Project," call (212) 941-1900.

* High school teachers interested in the study guide to the movie "Medicine Man" write Learning Enhancement, Grand Central Station, P. O. Box 5530, New York, N. Y. 10163, or call (212) 840-3390.

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