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THE NATION

Ban on Ephedra Triggers Rush for Many to Stock Up

Retailers of the herbal supplement say sales nationwide are higher in light of FDA's decision.

January 01, 2004|Paul McLeod, Melinda Fulmer and David Wharton | Times Staff Writers

The morning after federal authorities announced their intention to ban ephedra, the herbal derivative popular among some dieters and athletes, Mo Brandon drove straight to his local nutrition store.

Far from being alarmed by the government's warning that pills and drinks containing ephedra pose an "unreasonable risk," he wanted to stock up.

"I use it like coffee," the 31-year-old contractor from Huntington Beach said. "I'm in the gym at 3:30 in the morning. It really gets you going."

This scene was repeated nationwide Wednesday as manufacturers, retailers and gyms reported a run on ephedra-based products with names like Speed Stack, Ripped Force and Kranker.

According to an Internet-based distributor, sales were especially high in California, where a previously announced prohibition begins today.

"People are hooked on the effect [of ephedra]," said Naomi Fukuda, manager of L.A. Urban Fitness Nutrition Center in Venice. "It definitely gives you energy, and it's like an addiction."

Ephedra is an herbal version of pseudoephedrine, a drug found in many over-the-counter cold and allergy medications. Derived from the Asian herb ma huang, it is believed to suppress appetite and burn fat while also increasing blood pressure and heart rate.

In recent years, the substance has been blamed for heart attacks, strokes and at least 155 deaths. Baltimore Oriole pitcher Steve Bechler, 23, who had used the supplement, died of heat stroke during spring training last February.

While sales had dropped amid concerns, an estimated 10 million to 12 million consumers purchased $1.3 billion worth of the supplement in 2002, according to the Nutrition Business Journal in San Diego.

Manufacturers are expected to challenge the federal government's ban in court. On Wednesday, a supplements industry group said some consumers' eagerness to buy ephedra underscores what she characterized as the questionable basis for the administration's decision.

In banning ephedra, the FDA is making a judgment call on conflicting evidence, said Annette Dickinson, president of the Center for Responsible Nutrition.

"There have always been people who use ephedra, and have used it for some time without harm and with benefits," Dickinson said. "Clearly it is not unsafe for everybody, nor is it safe for everybody."

Some retailers -- such as the GNC chain with 5,000 locations nationwide -- have already stopped selling ephedra.

But the supplement's popularity was evident at stores in Massachusetts, Ohio and Kansas, among other states, where store employees quoted by Associated Press said sales on Wednesday were much higher than normal.

"People have been buying it like crazy," said Christopher Pappas, co-owner of the Lo Fat Know Fat Gourmet Cafe in Watertown, Mass. "They know it's going to be taken off the shelf so they're stocking up."

All-Sports Nutrition, next to Gold's Gym in Huntington Beach, sold its supply after news of the pending statewide ban began to sink in a month ago.

At Max Muscle in Pasadena, customer Edel Vizcarra said Wednesday that he had spent about $400 in the last few weeks stockpiling ephedra products such as Stacker 2 and Ripped Fuel.

"We'll sell it until it runs out or until someone walks in the door and ... tells us to stop," store owner Mike Scinocca said.

At Bodybuilding.com, an online supplement company based in Boise, Idaho, chief executive Ryan DeLuca said orders reached 2,000 on Tuesday -- double the company's one-day record -- which he attributed to a rush on ephedra.

"California is one of our biggest customer states," he said.

Federal regulators have expressed fears that the announced ban will steer business to Internet pharmacies that openly sell foreign-made pharmaceuticals, often without a prescription.

Regulators have told Congress they are hard-pressed to shut down Internet vendors who cast a wide net of "spam" e-mail inducements for everything from weight-loss drugs to antianxiety pills.

Fitness specialist Sed Dumont of the Workout gym in Huntington Beach said he did not expect a slack in demand among weightlifters.

"Everyone comes to the gym looking for a shortcut," Dumont said. "That's the nature of the beast."

But not everyone is nonchalant about the federal government's warning.

The Nutrition Business Journal estimated that most ephedra sales were linked to weight-loss products bought by women, the kind of supplements Julie Damico sells in the Orange County hair salon where she works.

"I thought it was natural," said the 53-year-old, who on Wednesday removed the product from the shelves. "I'm scared now."

Andy Jacobs, 48, of Pacific Palisades had a similar reaction after using ephedra for 15 years.

"I was the typical guy going to the gym," he said. "I didn't want to give the true effort it takes to get in shape and I was looking for a little easier way."

Jacobs said he stopped taking the supplement a couple of years ago after reading about its potential health risks.

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