Industry Lobbies Hard to Fight Ephedra Regulation
The "once fledgling" dietary supplement industry has become "a $15.7 billion behemoth that has stalled, softened or killed outright all efforts to restrict" the use of the herbal stimulant ephedra, the Washington Post reports. Taken to "lose weight or improve workouts," Ephedra, the industry's "biggest and most controversial money-maker," has been linked by state and federal officials to heart and nervous system damage. Since 1994, the FDA has linked the dietary supplement to 39 deaths and 695 cases of serious illness, including insomnia, nervousness, hypertension, arrhythmia, heart attack, seizure and stroke. But by wielding its "potent political power," the supplement industry has managed to divert "any attempt, no matter how modest," to regulate ephedra, the Post reports (Gugliotta, Washington Post, 12/25/00). In mid-December, the industry submitted to the FDA "new research showing that [ephedra] is safe when used as directed," Reuters/Philadelphia Inquirer reports. The data was compiled by the industry group Council for Responsible Nutrition and includes studies by scientists at Harvard and Columbia Universities. Patricia Daly, formerly of Harvard, said that a trial of 167 patients "showed no heart-related or other serious side effects in people taking a supplement with ephedra and caffeine." The FDA is reviewing the report.
In 1997, the FDA proposed restrictions on ephedra, but "pressure" from Congress and the dietary supplement industry led the agency to "reevaluate its position" on the drug (Richwine, Reuters/Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/25). Much of this pressure came from the supplement industry's "monumental lobbying force," which has targeted federal and state lawmakers with substantial campaign contributions, the Washington Post reports. The industry uses a variety of methods to achieve its goals, including "high-paid" lobbyists, "increasing" campaign contributions to "friendly" politicians, "high-profile" ads, grass-roots letter-writing campaigns to government agencies and "rapid-response denials to any news or academic report describing ephedra's dangers," the Post reports. The industry has found two "friendly" politicians in Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), both of whom have received campaign contributions from supplement companies. The two leading ephedra companies, Herbalife International and Starlight International, are currently the two largest contributors to Harkin's reelection 2002 campaign, while Starlight was the third-largest donor to Hatch's reelection campaign this year. Since 1995, Hatch has received more than $80,000 and Harkin more than $72,000 in direct campaign contributions from the industry. Both have aided the industry in coordinating lobbying efforts and have co-signed letters to the FDA "that repeated the companies' arguments [in favor of ephedra] almost verbatim," the Post reports. "There's no question that both Harkin and I are highly respected by these companies," Hatch said, adding, "They rely on me, because I'll do my very best to do what's right."
The dietary supplement industry has targeted state lawmakers as well. In Texas, home of one of "the most prolonged, pitched battles over ephedra," the industry has poured more than $4 million into lobbying efforts aimed at fighting regulations. Michael Ellis and Michael Blevins, co-founders of ephedra producer Metabolife International, contributed $5,000 each to President-elect Bush's 1998 gubernatorial campaign. Lobbying efforts were also extended to other state lawmakers, resulting in regulations "that the industry accepted," the Post reports. The 1999 regulations only require that companies "warn users to stop taking ephedra and consult a physician if they experience adverse reactions." California witnessed "less ambitious and ultimately even less successful" attempts to regulate the herb. Last February, Assembly member Susan Davis (D) introduced a bill which would require all ephedra products to carry labels giving consumers a toll-free telephone number allowing them to report "adverse reactions" to the state Department of Health Services. Fearing that the California law "would set a precedent for other states," the supplement industry worked with "political allies" in the state Legislature to amend the bill. After being altered five times, the bill eventually required the labels to tell consumers to call the companies, and not the state, with complaints. The bill "passed easily" in the Legislature, but was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis (D), who had received two $50,000 campaign contributions from Metabolife, with the first contribution arriving two days after Susan Davis introduced the bill. Gov. Davis spokesperson Steve Maviglio said that there is "no connection between contributions and [Davis'] decisions on bills" (Washington Post, 12/25).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.