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An Herb With Friends In High Places

Texas health officials, acting on the advice of Bush administration, have suspended enforcement of a labeling requirement for dietary supplements containing ephedra, a herbal stimulant that has been linked to heart disease, strokes and other health problems, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Texas rule requires supplements that contain ephedra to list on their labels a toll-free number that can be called to report suspected side effects the federal Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA previously tried to place restrictions on ephedra sales but has been re-evaluating its position after the industry complained that there was no scientific basis for limitations, Reuters reported.

The newspaper said enforcement of the new requirement has been suspended for at least 60 days following telephone calls to Austin, Texas, from a senior aide to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.

A Thompson spokesman said the department did not try to influence Texas regulators, the Times said.

The newspaper reported that federal interest in the Texas rule was prompted by concerns voiced by a lawyer for Metabolife International Inc., a dietary supplement manufacturer.

The attorney, Texas state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, said he had briefly discussed the company's concerns about the toll-free line with Thompson.

A Metabolife spokeswoman said the company is concerned about how the FDA or public might use information reported to the toll-free number, the Times reported.

In a related development, a consumer group asked the FDA to ban dietary supplements containing ephedra, citing health risks associated with the herb.

Public Citizen urged the FDA to immediately warn the public not to use ephedra products while officials consider the group's petition.

Ephedra, also known as ma huang, normally is used in supplements advertised to promote weight loss, muscle building and energy. Millions of Americans take ephedra products.

"These herbal supplements are marketed as being all-natural and safe, but in reality they are not safe. They can harm and kill," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group.

Makers of ephedra products insist the herb is safe when taken at recommended doses.

"Responsible industry stands behind the science regarding the safety and benefits of ephedra. When properly consumed, ephedra is safe, according to medical and scientific experts," the Ephedra Education Council, an industry group, said in a statement.

Public Citizen said its review of FDA records showed that 42 percent of all "adverse event" reports for dietary supplements from January 1993 to February 2000 involved products containing ephedra. Reported problems included 81 deaths, 32 heart attacks, 62 cases of irregular heartbeats and 69 strokes.

An FDA spokeswoman said the agency would carefully consider the Public Citizen petition.

© MMI, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Reuters Limited contributed to this report

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