Rational Inquiry -Volume 9 Number 1
Herbal Supplements: Still a Troubling Issue
By Edvard A. Hemmingsen
The U. S. Congress frequently succumbs under the pressures from lobbying by special interest groups, and at times it makes laws which are anti-science and bordering on the irrational and, certainly, are not in the best interest of the public. So it did in 1994 when it passed the now notorious law which allowed the food supplement industry to market products with little or no restrictions, even though they have never been shown to be either effective or safe. This law essentially put the industry beyond the reach of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), at least until they had inflicted clear damage to the public after being on the market for years. Although many of these products may be relatively harmless, albeit often totally useless, others have proven to be plain dangerous. We have in this newsletter repeatedly criticized the Congress for its ill-conceived action, as has the broad scientific medical community and other rational organizations that are concerned with the public's safety and welfare.
Some of the most heavily promoted and biggest selling "supplements" have been those containing ephedra, a metabolic stimulant derived from plants. Its principal active ingredient is ephedrine, which when synthesized is strictly regulated as a prescription drug! The action of ephedra is similar to that of amphetamine, which is a dangerous and illegal drug. This is not to say that all prescription drugs are safe. The difference is that such drugs are dispensed under medical supervision and monitoring unless illegally acquired, while herbal supplements usually are not.
Now finally, the FDA has taken the belated step to stop the sales of products containing ephedra, including the weight controlling pills marketed by San Diego based Metabolife International. The action came after numerous deaths and injuries had occurred to users who had not been warned adequately about the hazards associated with ephedra. More details about this move by FDA can be found at www.fda.gov/oc/ephedra/december2003/
Unfortunately, many highly questionable supplements remain on the store shelves, and are sold without restrictions. New ones are being rushed to the market to replace the ephedra products, with no evidence for safety or effectiveness. It is time for Congress to revisit the issue of control of herbal supplement, and pass legislation which will correct the error it made in 1994. The fact that a substance is "natural" does not make it safe; Socrates would have had a word to say about that.