New York bans ephedra

| 11/5/2003

The herbal supplement ephedra is now illegal in New York.

Gov. George Pataki has signed into law a measure that outlaws the substance, which has been connected with the deaths of a number of athletes and has been the target of both state and federal officials. During the signing ceremony, Pataki cited one athlete who died after using the drug.

“Across the nation, dietary supplements containing ephedra have been implicated in serious health problems, yet few consumers are aware of the danger,” Pataki said in a statement. “By banning the sale of most ephedra products in New York State, this important new public safety measure will help to prevent the tragic deaths of young athletes like Steve Bechler.”

Bechler was a pitching prospect for the Baltimore Orioles who collapsed during spring training and died the next day. A Florida coroner’s report determined that ephedra was a contributing factor in the athlete’s death, which was primarily caused by heat stroke. Bechler was 23.

The ban applies to over-the-counter, unregulated dietary supplements that contain a natural, herbal version of ephedra. A statement from the governor’s office said the new prohibition does not apply to nonprescription, over-the-counter drugs regulated by the Food and Drug Administration or to the Chinese herb ma huang – the sources of ephedra used in diet supplements – if it is dispensed by practitioners of acupuncture or Chinese medicine.

Retail outlets could face a $500 fine every time they sell a dietary supplement containing ephedra, media outlets reported.

New York is not the first state to target the supplement. In May, Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois signed a bill into law that banned all over-the-counter sales of ephedra, except in products that receive approval from the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and then only when deemed “safe and effective for its intended use” or under a label approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

That law was also inspired by the death of an athlete. Illinois student Sean Riggins, 16, died after taking the drug to enhance his performance on the football field, The Associated Press reported.

California Gov. Gray Davis signed a law earlier this year that will ban ephedra sales beginning in January, and the FDA is considering a nationwide ban on the dietary supplement, The Associated Press reported July 24. The possible action was revealed by FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan as he spoke before two House panels.

Ephedra is an herbal supplement frequently sold at convenience stores, and is often marketed as an “energy booster” and weight-loss aid. Some brands specifically market to truckers, and several types of pills containing the substance are frequently found near check-out counters at truck stops.

--by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor

Mark Reddig can be reached at