Many people who followed guidelines for using the herbal stimulant ephedra still reported health problems, congressional investigators found.
In addition, many complaints came from users under 30, the General Accounting Office (search) said in testimony prepared for Wednesday's hearing on dietary supplements before the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee.
Marcia Crosse, the GAO's acting director of health care-public health and science issues, said the reports of health problems made to drug-maker Metabolife International (search) included heart attacks, strokes and seizures. Five deaths also were reported.
Crosse also noted the Food and Drug Administration (search) has received more reports of problems from taking supplements with ephedra than any other ingredient.
Crosse said the problems reported to Metabolite "are consistent with the types of adverse events reported to FDA and with the documented physiological effects of ephedra." In addition, she said, the records of calls to Metabolite "contain reports of serious adverse effects in consumers who were young and among those who used the product within the recommended guidelines."
She said the average age of those who included an age when they called was 38, and ranged from 17 to 65. More than one-third were under 30.
In a statement submitted to the subcommittee, Metabolite said the company "strongly believes in the science supporting the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements that contain ephedra when used as directed."
The House subcommittee is holding two days of hearings on ephedra, which was thrust into the spotlight in February following the death of Baltimore Orioles minor league pitcher Steve Bechler (search), who had taken a dietary supplement containing ephedra.
Testifying before the subcommittee was Kevin Riggins, whose 16-year-old son, Sean, died of a heart attack blamed on ephedra.
"The little packages, which promote weight loss, performance and energy enhancement, were being sold right next to the Twinkies and candy bars," Riggins said in his prepared testimony. "The use of these products was so casual, none of the kids believed they were taking a drug."
Congress in 1994 severely limited federal oversight of dietary supplements, but some lawmakers said they should reconsider the law. "Some say that the law has allowed 'buyer beware' to replace 'safe and effective when used as directed,' " said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo.
House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., raised the possibility that could Congress could ban or restrict ephedra sales.
"These supplements ... can be bought at any 7-Eleven convenience store or gas station by anyone, including those under 18," Tauzin said, questioning "whether continuation of such a policy for ephedra makes sense, given what we have learned about the dangers of ephedra."
The FDA is sifting through 16,000 comments responding to its March proposal to order warning labels on bottles of ephedra. The FDA has not tried to ban the product, despite reports of more than 100 deaths being linked to the herb, citing the 1994 law.
In May, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (search) signed the nation's first statewide ban on ephedra.
Kiley Bechler, the pitcher's widow, filed suit in federal court last week against the manufacturer and distributor of the supplement containing ephedra that was found in her husband's locker.
Medical Examiner Joshua Perper in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where Bechler died, said ephedra in the weight-loss supplement Xenadrine RFA-1 (search) contributed to the heatstroke that killed the pitcher.
Officials of Cytodyne, which makes Xenadrine, released a letter to the House committee from forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, former New York City chief medical examiner, who said ephedra didn't cause Bechler's death.
Ephedra is banned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Football League and the International Olympic Committee (search) but not major league baseball.