No Diet Pills for You


A New York Times story about doctors who sell weight loss aids containing the herbal stimulant ephedra illustrates how the news media help discredit drugs that have fallen out of favor with the government. The fifth paragraph of the article warns:

Ephedra, especially in combination with caffeine, has been linked to scores of deaths, including that of Steve Bechler, a 23-year-old minor league baseball player who collapsed while training with the Baltimore Orioles in February.

Later the Times tells us that several athletic organizations prohibit the use of ephedra products, the American Medical Association wants them taken off the market, and the Food and Drug Administration is contemplating a ban. Not until the 29th paragraph do we learn that the "scores of deaths" mentioned early in the story—"117 reports of deaths among ephedra users," to be exact—cover a period of 10 years. In the next paragraph, the Times concedes:

Despite these statistics, no direct causal link has yet been established between the problems and ephedra use.

In fact, a RAND Corporation study commissioned by the FDA found only two fatalities where the presence of ephedra was confirmed and there was some effort to rule out alternative causes. The government has not made even a prima facie case that ephedra is more dangerous than other drugs available without a prescription, several of which are associated with far more deaths each year. But putting deaths "linked" to ephedra into perspective would have undermined the story line of greedy doctors recklessly jeopardizing their patients' lives and contradicted the new establishment line that ephedra use is too hazardous to be tolerated.