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2 Firms to Repay Customers to Resolve Ephedra Case

The FTC sues a marketer of weight-loss products that contain the herb, which has been linked to an athlete's death.

July 02, 2003|From Bloomberg News and Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Two companies that promoted ephedra dietary supplements with promises of safe and miraculous weight loss have agreed to repay customers $370,000 to resolve federal charges of deceptive advertising, regulators said Tuesday.

The Federal Trade Commission also is taking to court an operation based in California and Canada that it says made unsupported claims for weight-loss products and arthritis cures.

Health Laboratories North America Inc. and USA Pharmacal Sales Inc. agreed to pay $370,000 to consumers to redress charges that they falsely claimed their dietary supplements would cause rapid weight loss without exercise, the FTC said. The companies also agreed to warn consumers about the health risks of ephedra, the agency said.

"Unqualified safety claims for ephedra products are not supported by the evidence," J. Howard Beales III, head of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, told reporters at a news conference in Washington. A warning adopted by the industry states that ephedra isn't appropriate for people with heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure, he said.

By settling, the firms didn't acknowledge breaking any law.

Ephedra played a "significant" role in the heatstroke death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler in February, a Florida medical examiner ruled. Bechler suffered from high blood pressure and had abnormal liver function.

The FTC said the government sued Michael S. Levey and Gary Ballen of Los Angeles and three companies they operate, charging they made false or unsubstantiated claims about Zymax and MillinexES weight-loss products containing ephedra.

The lawsuit against Levey and Ballen, filed by the Justice Department on behalf of the FTC in federal court in Los Angeles, also charged that Levey violated a 1993 FTC order that he stop making false claims about diet, hair-loss and impotence products.

The Food and Drug Administration is considering a new health warning about ephedra and in February solicited comments about stricter regulation, including a possible ban on the product. Regulators are seeking a new warning on over-the-counter products containing ephedra that the herb is linked to heart attacks, stroke, seizure and death.

Health Laboratories advertised its Berry Trim Plus in newspapers and ad supplements. USA Pharmacal, which markets a "Meta-Biological" weight-loss cocktail, also advertised in newspapers.

Together, Health Laboratories, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Pharmacal, in Palm Harbor, Fla., sold more than $44 million of weight-loss products. There was no telephone listing for Health Laboratories in Scottsdale. A Pharmacal spokesman didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.

There were no telephone listings in Los Angeles for Levey or Ballen or two of their companies.

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