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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The federal government's coming ban on the stimulant ephedra has led to a run on the supplement in Utah, where companies are straining to meet demand.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 30 warned consumers to immediately stop taking any dietary supplement containing ephedrine -- also known as ephedra or Ma huang -- and told the three Utah companies that manufacture the supplements they must stop production within 60 days after the ban is officially put in place.
Customers are stockpiling diet pills in advance of the ban, expected to go into effect early this year.
"Our sales have gone through the roof," said Kelly Harvey, vice president of TSN Labs Inc. in Murray, where one-third of total sales are ephedra products. "Ephedra is a product that works, and people like it. We will continue to sell it up until the last minute we are able to."
The ephedra ban stems from scores of dangerous reactions and several deaths attributed to the supplement, which also is marketed as an energy booster.
Nationwide, more than 60 companies make products affected by the ban. The three Utah companies that manufacture ephedra-based supplements are Basic Research and subsidiaries in Salt Lake City, TSN Labs in Murray and Nutraceutical Corp. in Park City.
Last year, TSN Labs introduced ephedra-free versions of its weight-loss supplements after a number of retailers sent the company's ephedra-based products back due to the bad publicity about the supplement and asked for ephedra-free replacements.
The switch was costly, Harvey said, noting that the company had to cope with about a three-month period when both products were off the shelf. Harvey said he worries about how well ephedra-free weight loss supplements will sell. He also worries about other bans.
"We've diversified enough that we can get over this," Harvey said. "But are they going to knock off more herbal remedies, one by one?"
Like other supplement manufacturers, Harvey said he can't understand why the FDA would ban ephedra.
"We've been selling the product for 12 years," he said. "During that time we've never had a medical claim."
Over the past couple of years, the owners of Basic Research in Salt Lake City began to worry about the future prospects of their weight loss pills containing ephedra. Basic Research, which was founded in 1992, used to sell ephedra-based weight loss supplements at stores such as GNC.
"Our ephedra products used to make up a sizeable portion of our business," he said.
As complaints lodged with the FDA about ephedra mounted, there were rumors the agency would at some point ban the substance. Some retailers voluntarily pulled ephedra products off the shelves.
Salt Lake City-based Basic Research, which had several highly successful ephedra-based products, quickly formulated and began marketing an ephedra-free weight loss supplement in March 2003.
Rather than stockpiling ephedra, some people who have used it as a weight-loss supplement, such as Chelsey Nelson, have elected to take ephedra-free alternatives.
Nelson, who works in a Bountiful health-food store, took an ephedra-based supplement for about six months last year to lose 25 pounds. Anticipating the ban, she stopped taking it and found a substitute ephedra-free remedy to speed up her metabolism and help her maintain her weight.
"It's the people who took too much, the people who didn't follow the directions who ruined it for everybody," she said. "It's unfortunate."
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)