It sounds like the congressional hearings on ephedra products scheduled for today and tomorrow will focus on manufacturers' alleged dishonesty–in particular, Metabolife International's reluctance to report its customers' adverse reactions to the Food and Drug Administration. But accusations of industry chicanery should not distract attention from the hyperbole of ephedra's opponents, who have whipped up public alarm about a drug with a safety record that compares favorably to those of many popular over-the-counter remedies and prescription drugs (yes, even when you take into account the Metabolife data).
The ephedra industry is vulnerable partly because it depends on a loophole in federal law that allows "dietary supplements," including "herbs," to be sold without the sort of FDA approval that is required for pharmaceuticals. Hence manufacturers have to pretend their product is not a drug. This legalistic maneuver gives consumers a little more freedom to self-medicate, but it also raises unreasonable expectations about safety.
The dietary supplement route is not the only way for a psychoactive substance to escape regulation as a drug. Coffee is a "food," for example, even though it contains caffeine. The success of this label is apparent from the fact that the manufacturer of NoDoz, which is considered a drug, reassures consumers by telling them the stimulant is "safe as coffee." It's too bad for the ephedra industry that Mormon tea never really caught on.