Ephedra Ban Could Cut Into Club Profits


Some health clubs could see a drop in dietary supplement sales once the ban on ephedra goes into effect, but club owners seem confident that other weight-loss supplements can help members with their goals.

Laurie Moore, assistant manager at Ironman Gym in La Porte, IN, says that the dietary supplement drink containing ephedra sold at her facility is the biggest seller of all the facility's supplement drinks. The club used to sell other dietary supplements containing ephedra but stopped doing so about 10 months ago when they couldn't get them from the distributor any longer.

“A lot of us have known it (the ban) was coming for a long time,” says Scott Nelson, assistant general manager at the Spokane Club in Spokane, WA. Nelson supports the ban and calls ephedra a health issue even though he admits that a lot of people still believe in the benefits of ephedra. However, he says that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proved the negative effects of the product.

Other club owners have already pulled ephedra from their shelves. The Body Builder Gym in Los Angeles, banned ephedra more than four years ago, the owner says. He supports the ban as well.

On Dec. 30, 2003, the FDA announced that it would issue a ruling in a few weeks that would ban all dietary supplements that contain a source of ephedrine alkaloids. Ephedrine alkaloids include ephedra, ma huang, sida cordifolia and pinellia.

“It doesn't matter whether we support it or not,” Victor Matos, one of the owners of The Gridiron Club in Miami, says about the ban. “We have been instructed to take it off the shelf.”

Officials from the Department of Agriculture stopped by the Gridiron Club in early January to inform the club of the upcoming ban. The officials stated that they would return in March to make sure that the club no longer had any banned supplements on its shelves.

“It sold well here,” Matos says about the ephedra-containing drink the club sells. “As soon as it is depleted, we will stop selling it. We won't order anymore.”

However, manufacturers of products containing ephedra are now looking for alternatives. The customers are there for products that enhance athletic performance and aid in weight loss, says Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association.

“I would think that the manufacturers and marketers are going to research new ingredients and products and bring them to the market,” says McGuffin.

While the FDA rule pertains to all currently marketed dietary supplements, it does not pertain to traditional Chinese herbal remedies and it generally does not apply to products such as herbal teas that are regulated as conventional foods. When the rule is finally published, it will go into greater detail about the actual traditional herbal remedies that are exempt, says Laura Alvey, spokesperson at the Food and Drug Administration. The ruling will become final 60 days after publication. Publication is expected by the end of January.

The FDA is urging vendors with ephedra supplements on their shelves to stop dispensing them immediately, says Alvey. “We recommend they not wait until the rule goes into effect to stop selling,” she says.

The FDA has already sent letters to manufacturers and distributors of ephedrine alkaloid-containing supplements to inform them of the ban. The letter states that those who do not comply will face enforcement action against them.

While few details of the FDA ban had been released as of press time, a law in California that bans the sale of dietary supplements that contain ephedrine alkaloids may lend some clues to what the FDA ruling will include, says McGuffin.

California bans the sale of ephedra products with a few exceptions. The state still allows manufacturers of products containing a source of ephedrine alkaloids to sell the products to a licensed health care practitioner and to licensed pharmacists who can then resell the product to patients to whom it has been prescribed. The products, however, are not available at health food stores or grocery stores. The FDA could end up setting similar requirements, McGuffin says.

“This rule is not going to be a sieve,” McGuffin says about the federal ban. “They have defined two exemptions, and I am confident they will write this [rule] in a manner that will not only prevent its abuse, but in a manner that authorizes the agency to act swiftly and aggressively to remove products that [falsely] claim they are traditional Chinese remedies.”

McGuffin doesn't expect many licensed dieticians and nutritionists to risk their livelihood by exaggerating the exemptions and “prescribing” ephedra to clients as an herbal remedy when the desired outcome is actually weight loss or improved athletic performance.

In fact, prescribing traditional Chinese herbal remedies would not have the same weight loss effect as the dietary supplements, says Dr. Margot Longenecker, ND, who has a private naturopathic practice in Connecticut and is a member of the faculty at the University of Bridgeport's College of Naturopathic Medicine. The dietary supplements are formulated differently.

Dr. Longenecker says that aspirin and some pharmaceuticals are more dangerous than ephedra, but she wouldn't ever prescribe ephedra for weight loss.

“I think ephedra has been misused in the weight loss category,” she says. “The way that it's been formulated isn't the way it's been traditionally used. When it is used for weight loss, that's where the potential for misuse can be.”

Whether this ban could lead to bans on other supplements is unknown.

“God only knows,” says Matos. “You are dealing with the FDA and they can do whatever they want.”

For now, however, the FDA is focused on ephedra and that means happy about it or not, gyms, gym owners, nutritionists, pro shops and gym members won't be seeing ephedra at their facilities any longer.

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