Dietary Supplements - Who's in Charge

Steven Scott Bechler (November 18, 1979 - February 17, 2003), a Major League Baseball pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, died at the beginning of spring training in 2003 after using the herbal supplement ephedra in an effort to lose weight.


Ephedra, from the plant Ephedra sinica, has been used as an herbal remedy in traditional Chinese medicine for 5,000 years for the treatment of asthma and hay fever, as well as for the common cold. Known in Chinese as ma huang, ephedra is a stimulant that constricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure and heart rate.

Ephedra-containing dietary supplements have been linked to serious side effects and a number of deaths. Initial efforts to test and regulate ephedra were defeated by lobbying and political pressure from the dietary supplement industry. Ultimately, in response to accumulating evidence of adverse effects and deaths related to ephedra, the FDA banned the sale of ephedra-containing supplements on April 12, 2004.

Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates dietary supplements as foods, not drugs. While pharmaceutical companies are required to obtain FDA approval proving the safety or effectiveness of their products prior to their entry into the market, dietary supplements, like food, do not need to be pre-approved by FDA before they can enter the market. While guidelines are available for labeling of supplement products, label approval is not required prior to sale. This Act does not provide the public with the information needed to protect their health and does not ensure that only the safest supplement products are available for consumption.