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Fix the ruleson supplements

The FDA shouldn't have to prove a product dangerous before banning it

The good news on this New Year's morning is that the Food and Drug Administration finally banned the sale of ephedra. The bad news is that it came too late for Steve Bechler, and for the more than 100 other people whose deaths have been linked to the product.

Bechler, 23, a South Medford High School graduate, collapsed and died of heat stroke during spring training for the Baltimore Orioles last February. Chemicals derived from ephedra were found in his system.

Public health advocates had been urging action against this dangerous herbal supplement for years, but the combination of lobbying by the supplement industry and a backwards law governing regulation of supplements meant no action was taken until it was too late.

We have many wishes for the coming year. Some may come to pass; others, we fear, may be mere wishful thinking. But this one could be accomplished, if Congress can find the political will to resist pressure from industry lobbyists.

Federal law regarding the sale of pharmaceutical drugs is clear and sensible: before a drug can be sold to the public, the FDA must test it and prove it is safe. But if a substance is classified as a dietary supplement and not a drug, it is allowed to be sold unless the FDA can prove it is not safe.

That's why Tuesday's ban on ephedra was the first such action ever taken by the FDA against a supplement.

— It seems only logical to err on the side of caution when deciding what substances can be marketed to consumers. But the huge loophole in the law means consumers are unwitting guinea pigs for the makers of supplements not considered drugs.

Advocates of herbal supplements argue that ephedra has valuable uses and is safe when used properly. If that's true, then it should be classified as a drug and used only under a physician's supervision.

The only way to determine that is to allow the FDA to do its job and certify the safety of substances marketed to the public.