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Felled by 'Herbal' Diet Drug

AMP II drops, a potent mix of stimulants including ephedrine, caused a woman's stroke, she alleges. Her case shines a light on a largely unregulated industry.

April 04, 2002|RAY F. HERNDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANCHORAGE — Rosie Talbert, a working mother of four, relied on energy and enthusiasm to hold her own on the volleyball court. "Spiking was way out of my league since I'm short," she said, "but I could really get under the ball."

During one game at a state park campground in the summer of 1995, she felt sick, staggered to the sidelines and collapsed. Talbert was diagnosed as suffering from heat exhaustion. As they sent her home, emergency room doctors gave her husband, Dan, this advice: "Get her some Gatorade."

Three days later, Talbert's condition had not improved. A brain scan showed that she had suffered a massive stroke. A weeklong battery of tests failed to determine why.

"They said they couldn't guarantee I wouldn't have another," she recalled recently. "I was terrified."

For nearly two years, Talbert had been putting diet drops in her coffee three times a day. The drops were made by a Utah company called E'Ola International, and they contained ephedrine, a popular but controversial herbal stimulant.

Ephedrine is the key ingredient in dozens of dietary supplements sold at supermarkets, drugstores, even health clubs. It gives athletes an energy surge and helps dieters control their appetites. But a growing body of evidence has linked ephedrine to heart attacks, strokes and other side effects.

In 1995, awareness of these risks was not widespread, even in the medical community. Talbert's doctors were at a loss to explain why this physically active, 34-year-old woman had been stricken.

In time, they and she came to believe that the diet drops were to blame. The more Talbert thought about it, the angrier she got. She hired a lawyer and set out to hold E'Ola International accountable. She wanted money, but not only that. She wanted publicity too. The more the better.

She knew it would not happen quickly. Finally, in an Anchorage courtroom last year, Talbert's lawyer subjected E'Ola to the kind of public scrutiny the supplement industry had long sought to avoid.

What the testimony revealed about E'Ola was described by the judge and jury as "outrageous."

The dietary supplement industry has grown rapidly in recent years and offers hundreds of herbal products touted as promoting everything from muscle mass to sexual potency.

Sales have nearly doubled, to $16 billion a year, since 1994. In that year, Congress exempted supplements from nearly all federal regulation. Supplement makers are major donors to congressional and presidential campaigns, and they lobbied hard for the legislation.

Its effects were sweeping. Unlike pharmaceuticals or food additives, herbal supplements do not have to be screened by the Food and Drug Administration before going on the market, or proved safe through research.

And unlike drug companies, supplement makers are not required to notify the FDA of adverse reactions to their products. The agency has relied on voluntary reporting by physicians and consumers in piecing together a picture of ephedrine's dangers.

The industry's most important Washington ally is Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). A supplement user himself, Hatch says he is acting to preserve freedom of choice for consumers and to protect companies that are major employers and taxpayers in his state. He says herbal products such as ephedrine are not foods or drugs and should not be subject to "arbitrary" actions by federal bureaucrats.

Herb Used in China

Ephedrine is derived from a plant called ephedra, or ma huang, a medicinal herb used in teas in China. It is a chemical cousin of amphetamine and a stimulant to the heart and nervous system.

Ephedrine energy supplements with names such as Ripped Fuel and Andro Heat are popular with athletes and bodybuilders. Such products are suspected of contributing to the deaths of several college and professional football players over the last year.

But FDA data show that most of those who suffer serious side effects from ephedrine are women--typically, women in their 30s and 40s who were taking supplements to lose weight.

Especially risky, according to the FDA, are products containing both caffeine and ephedrine.

E'Ola's AMP II Pro drops were such a product. Rosie Talbert began taking them in 1993. She often struggled to control her weight, especially during the long Alaskan winters. She learned about the diet drops from her mother, who had learned about them from a deli manager, who said they had helped her shed 80 pounds.

The drops cost $15 to $20 for a 1-ounce squeeze bottle. Talbert's mother became an E'Ola distributor so she could get a nearly 30% discount. Talbert helped out, delivering the drops to her co-workers at Chugach Electric, a southern Alaska utility.

E'Ola literature touted the drops as "all herbal" and safe. Talbert took them without incident for nearly two years, losing 20 to 30 pounds.

Then, on June 3, 1995, she suffered her stroke. It left two lumps of dead tissue in her cerebellum, each the size of a golf ball.

The next several months, she said, were filled with fear and uncertainty.

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