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Law Bans Ephedra Use in Diet Pills

The stimulant has been linked to such problems as heart attacks and strokes. Bill is among last of Gov. Davis' term.

October 14, 2003|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis, acting on a final batch of bills, has signed legislation to ban the sale of diet pills that contain the potent stimulant ephedra, in a move that could further weaken a firm that had been one of his major donors during his first term.

The company, Metabolife International Inc., reacted by saying in a statement that it might move its operations to another state "with a more business-friendly climate" -- prompting the bill's author, Sen. Jackie Speier, to say, "Be our guest."

"We don't need businesses like Metabolife," said Speier, a Democrat from Hillsborough who had been pushing for legislation to restrict the sale of such products since 1999.

Davis' action follows legislation approved in New York and Illinois this year banning the sale of dietary supplements that contain ephedra, which has been linked to heart attacks, seizures, strokes and death. It also marks the final step in what amounted to an about-face for the governor, who was recalled last week.

"The governor felt the Bush administration had been dragging its feet long enough on this issue, and it was time for the state to act," Davis spokesman Steven Maviglio said Monday.

In 2000, Davis vetoed a bill to impose minor restrictions on the products. At the time, the Democratic governor proclaimed that the regulation of such products was an interstate commerce issue, and was the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's responsibility.

Davis made that pronouncement after Metabolife had made $150,000 in political donations. He later received $25,000 more from Michael J. Ellis, who founded the San Diego firm in the mid-1990s and built it into the nation's largest producer of ephedra-containing products.

A spokesman for Gov.-Elect Arnold Schwarzenegger declined to comment on Davis' move. Schwarzenegger earlier had called on Davis to stop making appointments and signing bills, even though dozens of pieces of legislation would have automatically become law if he had failed to act on them by early Monday. A spokesman later elaborated that Schwarzenegger only meant bills that would change the direction of state government.

Moves to ban ephedra gained attention last year after the highly publicized deaths of several professional and collegiate athletes, and after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it was investigating Metabolife statements that it had received no consumer complaints about adverse reactions. In fact, the FDA and congressional investigators have found, the company had received more than 13,000 such complaints over the years.

In 2002, Davis signed legislation by Speier banning sales of ephedra-based products to minors and requiring that more stringent warnings be placed on the labels.

Federal law imposes few restrictions on dietary supplements, which include vitamins and an array of herbs such as palmetto, St. John's wort and ephedra so long as manufacturers don't make specific medical claims. Ephedra is an herbal version of pseudo-ephedrine, a drug in many over-the-counter cold and allergy remedies.

But Speier relied on the state's right to protect Californians' health in pushing for the legislation, SB 582.

Her bill, which takes effect Jan. 1, will prohibit the sale or distribution of dietary supplements containing ephedra, unless a physician prescribes it. Even then, the substance cannot be prescribed for weight loss or to boost energy. However, it can still be used in Eastern medicine for treating asthma, its traditional use.

Under the law, Metabolife and other producers and marketers could continue to sell their products outside the state, but not in California. Violation would be a misdemeanor.

Speier's bill was backed by the California Medical Assn. and several other health groups, along with Consumers Union and Consumer Attorneys of California, which represents trial lawyers who have sued producers on behalf of consumers who have suffered ill effects.

"It is about time," San Diego attorney James Frantz, who has several suits pending against producers, said of Davis' action. "He realized that it was the right thing to do. I think he wanted to have a clear conscience."

Metabolife spokeswoman Jan Strode said in a statement that the company believes the FDA should decide whether to regulate the product. Strode also said the investigation into the company continues.

The privately held company's finances are confidential. But major retailers, including Wal-Mart and GNC, have removed such products from their shelves.

"The evidence is so overwhelming," Speier said. "Hopefully it will be a wake-up call to the federal government."

Altogether, Davis signed 909 bills in 2003 and vetoed 58. Maviglio estimated that the vetoed bills would have cost $281 million this year, and $2.6 billion a year in future years. The governor estimated that during his time in office, he vetoed bills that would have cost $9 billion a year.

In other action, Davis:

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