by Ari Armstrong
[This column originally appeared in Boulder Weekly on January 8, 2004.]
Who should decide what risks are reasonable for you -- you or a bureaucrat? According to the politicians in Congress and the bureaucrats at the Food and Drug Administration, the correct answer is a bureaucrat.
On December 30, the FDA announced it is banning the diet herb ephedra because related products "pose an unreasonable health risk." The FDA's dire warnings convinced some but inspired others across the nation to stockpile supplies before the ban takes effect.
Let's consider another example of risk. Aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen do many wonderful things for many people, but they also do some nasty things to some people. Specifically, they can contribute to ulcers, internal bleeding, and death, particularly among the elderly.
So is taking aspirin a reasonable risk? For many people it is, but for me it is not. I no longer take aspirin or other NSAIDs even for a headache. Heart disease runs in my family, but I choose to counter this primarily with a good diet and exercise. I also drink alcohol and eat chocolate in moderate amounts. To counter inflammation, I eat ginger root, which is reputed to be pretty good for you generally.
So taking aspirin is risky. So is driving a car, eating too much sugar, or going to the doctor. Living entails risk. Nearly all of the 2.4 million U.S. deaths in 2001 were health-related. Over 100,000 deaths involved an unintentional injury, and over 40,000 involved a vehicle crash.
What is the risk of taking ephedra? According to the L.A. Times, over the last several years more than 10 million people have taken diet supplements containing the substance, and its use has "been blamed for heart attacks, strokes and at least 155 deaths."
Of course, risk of health problems depends on the individual user and the amount used. Jon Barron, a "health guru" I heard speak in Aspen a couple years ago, wrote, "I am not a great fan of ephedra for weight-loss... [yet] it is not particularly dangerous when used responsibly. Certainly not as dangerous as aspirin or hamburger, for that matter."
Not all use is responsible. The L.A. Times quoted one ephedra user, "I use it like coffee... I'm in the gym at 3:30 in the morning. It really gets you going." The FDA reports, "In recent years ephedra products have been extensively promoted for use to aid weight loss, enhance sports performance, and increase energy."
I have no interest in buying ephedra. I think it's pretty obvious how to lose weight: eat less food, eat better food, and exercise more. There's no good short-cut for this. To "increase energy," follow the same regimen, plus get sufficient rest and control stress. (I do drink green tea, which contains small amounts of the stimulant drug caffeine.)
What is ephedra, exactly? In its herbal form it is known as Ma Huang, and it's common in China. The FDA hasn't banned this substance altogether; it has banned only "dietary supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids." The FDA notes its ban "does not pertain to traditional Chinese herbal remedies" or "products like herbal teas." Barron adds, "[Y]ou will still be able to buy pure ephedrine, the active ingredient in ephedra, to your heart's content, in cold capsules available in supermarkets and pharmacies all over the world with no restrictions."
One particular variant of the substance you'll want to avoid. The Drug Enforcement Agency reports, "Ephedrine, a precursor chemical used in the production of methamphetamine, is readily available from sources in China and India." Selling "too many" cold pills is now illegal in Colorado, because cold pills are a "precursor" to methamphetamine production in home "labs."
What could be more obvious than the simple truth that different people evaluate risks differently? Some people smoke, drink, ski, play football, and drive cars for whimsical reasons. Rock climbing and car racing produce some of the same physiological effects as taking certain drugs. Is it really the job of some far-away bureaucrat to decide for us what risks are "reasonable?"
What if you happen to disagree with the FDA? Well, then the FDA will engage in "criminal prosecution of violators." Put another way, if you try to sell the wrong diet pills, the FDA will send thugs with guns to stop you and lock you in a steel cage. If you resist, the thugs with guns will kill you -- in the name of public health, of course.
Ephedra is only one target. Armed police agents already roam the streets to stop people from smoking plants like tobacco and marijuana on private property. Now some Californians want to ban "junk" food from vending machines.
In an adult society, individuals get to decide for themselves what substances they ingest pose a "reasonable" risk. False claims and negligence are handled through civil suits. The greatest "unreasonable risk" comes from Big Nanny bureaucrats who threaten physical force against those who dare to decide for themselves which plants to consume.