The FDA ban on ephedra has been spectacularly successful in preventing harm and death. Despite the fact that I regularly bust the FDA’s chops, I believe in giving credit where credit is due and the FDA has earned some in this case. The FDA banned the popular weight loss and energy boosting herbal supplement in 2004. The ban was overturned in 2005 but the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled to uphold it in 2006. Ephedra was the first herbal diet supplement to be banned.
A report in the May 28 issue of New England Journal of Medicine stated, “The number of poisonings resulting in major effects or deaths has decreased by more than 98% since 2002. The 2004 FDA ban has proved to be a very effective means of limiting the availability of ephedra and therefore its potential toxicity in the United States.”
The herb ma huang was named ephedra in the U.S. While it did give users some short-term weight loss, it was more likely to put them in grave danger, especially for those users who also consumed caffeine. In fact, several people died, including Steve Bechler (2003), a Baltimore Orioles pitching prospect. Ephedra was causing strokes, heart attacks, heart rhythm issues, high blood pressure and seizures.
The statistics don’t lie. The ephedra ban almost completely eliminated the problem. Almost, because all one needs to do is Google “ephedra” and one can find multiple online stores still selling the product. One assumes these companies are based outside the U.S.
Researchers used data from the Nation Poison Data System to find that ephedra poisonings peaked in 2002 at 10,326. By 2013, that number was down to 180. Hospitalization-level poisonings peaked in 2002 at 108, but were down to three or fewer per year by 2008. The death toll peaked in 2004 at seven victims. One person died in 2005, another in 2007 and no one after that.
It’s not often that I pat the FDA on the back and say, “Nice job!” so mark it on your calendars.