. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Gearing to Stop Sales Of 'Herbal High' Stimulant

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government is preparing to stop sales of herbs that promise a "natural high," and is probing whether even traditional dietary supplements that contain a controversial stimulant are endangering Americans.

At issue is the botanical version of ephedrine, sold in dietary supplements that claim to spur weight loss and boost energy. Some companies also market it to young people as an alternative to illegal drugs like Ecstasy, promising the same euphoria and other hallucinogenic effects.

But the stimulant can cause severe reactions, from seizures to strokes. The Food and Drug Administration has received more than 600 reports of injuries -- and 17 deaths -- associated with ephedrine supplements.

Now FDA officials say they are moving to stop sales by one side of the industry: Supplements pushed, on the Internet and in counterculture publications, as "herbal high" alternatives to illegal drugs.

In letters that often are one of the agency's last steps before taking a company to court, the FDA last week accused six firms of ignoring repeated warnings about health risks.

"We consider marketing of these products to be irresponsible," says one warning letter written by officials at the FDA.

At the same time, the FDA was asking outside scientists whether there should be curbs on even traditional herbal supplements containing ephedrine that are sold in health-food stores, such as an herbal mix called ma huang, Chinese ephedra or an asserted athletic booster called Ripped Fuel.

"We are very concerned" because reports of injuries have almost doubled in the last year, said FDA spokesman Arthur Whitmore.

Ephedra, ephedrine's natural version, does pose some risks, particularly to people with heart disease, hypertension and certain other conditions, acknowledged Michael McGuffin of the American Herbal Products Association.

At the FDA's two-day meeting Aug. 27 and Aug. 28, the industry offered to put warnings to that effect on ephedrine supplements and to limit the amount anyone should consume in a day, McGuffin said.

"There is an appropriate means by which ephedra can be consumed," McGuffin insisted.

But McGuffin and health-food stores are trying to separate their products from the "drug-mocking" competitors the FDA targeted last week -- ones like Herbal Ecstacy, whose manufacturer has said it invented the product especially as an alternative to the illegal drug Ecstasy.

Herbal Ecstacy is perfectly safe, counters William Dailey, attorney for manufacturer Global World Media Corp., one of the six firms that received FDA warning letters.

Its inventor, Sean Shayan, has touted the product as safer than street drugs. Last spring he thanked the FDA, saying his sales actually increased after the agency issued a consumer warning against such products.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week detailed people with no known health risks who died or were injured after taking routine amounts of ephedrine.