Ephedra: Who's Telling the Truth?

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Call them the ephedra wars. For the past five years, the FDA has been trying to restrict the availability of ephedra, an herbal stimulant and the active ingredient in hundreds of popular diet aids and energy boosters sold across the U.S. The reason for the agency's mounting alarm: ephedra has been linked to a number of strokes, heart attacks and seizures and more than 100 deaths. But every time the FDA gets closer to its goal, the dietary-supplements industry successfully lobbies other parts of the government to roll back changes.

Now the FDA is calling in the big guns at the Justice Department, which last week confirmed that it has launched a criminal investigation of Metabolife, a leading seller of remedies containing ephedra. At issue is whether the company, based in San Diego, lied about ephedra's safety in 1998 when it said Metabolife had never been notified of "any serious health event" caused by its products. A company spokesperson maintains that no false statements were made and that ephedra is safe when used according to directions.

Meanwhile, a growing number of athletic groups have decided they can't wait for a scientific resolution to the controversy. Ephedra has been banned by the NFL, the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee. Predictably, Major League Baseball has taken no action yet. --By Leon Jaroff