WASHINGTON — In the beginning, Debra Jones was simply trying to do a favor for a friend, but today she is a leader in the cause of finding natural remedies for the childhood maladies known as attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
It is a fertile and growing field. Her organization, Parents Against Ritalin, is a rallying point for opposition to the leading prescription treatment for ADD and ADHD, and interest is "like never before," she said.
Parents Against Ritalin, as its Web site attests, advocates "natural alternatives" for treating ADD and ADHD, including herbal and dietary supplements.
"Our organization does not endorse or recommend any product, company, service or physician," Jones said. "We're not hooked up with a company."
But Jones is. Since about the time she founded Parents Against Ritalin in Claremore, Okla., in 1995, Jones has served as an independent distributor for the Utah-based supplement company Enrich International.
Jones said she is "very protective of there not being a conflict of interest."
Jones said she founded Parents Against Ritalin in response to a plea from a friend who had irked her son's North Carolina school district for refusing to put him on Ritalin. Her friend "had the resources" to win the battle, but others did not, Jones said.
On Aug. 23, 1996, Jones appeared on behalf of the organization at a hearing in Austin before the Texas Department of Health, to speak against a proposal to regulate the sales of products containing the herb ephedra, also known as ma huang.
Enrich had a half-dozen speakers at the hearing, for although it makes only three products for children--a nutritional drink mix, an echinacea product and a tranquilizer using the sleep aid valerian--it produces a full line of adult supplements, including ephedra, usually marketed as a fat-burner or energy-booster.
And in 1996, Enrich was promoting ephedra as a remedy for children's ADHD. Its in-house magazine at the end of that year included testimonials from parents who had successfully treated their children with Enrich products, among them "Spark"--each capsule of which contains 204 milligrams of ephedra.
Ephedra is the most controversial supplement in the industry, linked by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to 685 cases of serious illness and 39 deaths in six years, and is the subject of an ongoing battle between the supplement industry and would-be regulators in the federal and state governments.
It is a close cousin of methamphetamine and in the past enjoyed a certain status among many young people as "legal speed" because of the kick it could give, especially when combined with other stimulants, such as caffeine.
Jones discounts ephedra's reputation for serious side effects, including insomnia, nervousness, hypertension, seizures, stroke and death.
"Often, when you investigate the details, you find that use of ephedra was only one of many contributing elements," she said.
And in Austin, Jones made the case for ephedra as a Ritalin substitute: "It saddens me to think that we would live in a society today that would prefer to . . . drug our children than allow them to have the freedom to grow and to flourish naturally with herbal supplementation."
Enrich, now a subsidiary of the Dutch nutritional giant Royal Numico, makes no claims regarding ephedra's use as a treatment for ADD or ADHD. Chief Operating Officer David Mastroiani, who joined Enrich in 1999, noted that company lawyers are supposed to approve all promotional literature used by distributors.
Three times--in 1996, 1998 and 1999--the Texas Board of Health proposed a rule making ephedra products available by prescription only; three times, in the face of fierce industry opposition, the board allowed the effort to die.
Jones did not return to Texas' fight over ephedra after 1996, but her support for ephedra as an ADD and ADHD treatment remains unshaken.
"You wouldn't think you would give an ADHD child a stimulant such as Ritalin [or ephedra] to calm them down and/or increase their focus, but in many children that's exactly the effect that is produced," Parents Against Ritalin's literature states.