Banned Chinese herb used in HK

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 November, 2003, 12:00am

Ephedra, found in numerous food supplements and linked to deaths, is outlawed in second US state, but local manufacturers are not required to say how much of it is in their products

A Chinese herb just banned from over-the-counter sales in New York state after it was linked to scores of deaths is readily available in Hong Kong and poses a 'potential danger' to consumers, according to a local expert.

Ephedra, or ma huang, is a Chinese herbal plant native to southern China. It is used in products for losing weight, to fight off colds and boost athletic performance.

The herb is regularly prescribed in Chinese medicine and can be found in slimming products on the shelves of Hong Kong pharmacies.

Ricky Y.K. Man, president of the Hong Kong Pharmacology Society, said Hong Kong regulations did not require manufacturers to state the dosage of ephedra if it was in a 'food supplement'.

'There is no way to know the amount of the dose you are taking,' said Professor Man, who is also head of pharmacology at the University of Hong Kong.

'The problem is that if you are using it in food supplements for weight reduction and, in some cases as a mild stimulant, you are using it in higher than the normal amounts so side effects could occur.'

He said the herb affected the heart and cardiovascular system.

Professor Man said there was also a lack of systematic testing for levels of ephedra in food supplements.

'The potential danger is there and we do not know how serious it is as there is no reporting of it as yet,' he said. 'So far, we do not have too many reports on it but there may be a number of reasons for that ... not having a reporting system, people do not recognise [its links to any incidents] and the situation is not as serious because the products do not contain a high amount of ephedra.'

Professor Man also said ephedra was popular in the practice of traditional Chinese medicine.

He said that under the supervision of a qualified practitioner, ephedra would be given in low doses and would therefore pose no threat.

His comments follow moves by New York to become the second state in America to ban ephedra as an over-the-counter herbal supplement.

The ban comes after it was linked to scores of deaths in the US, including athlete Steve Bechler, 23, a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles.

Bechler collapsed during a spring training workout in February and died of heat stroke.

Experts linked the heat stroke he suffered to his consumption of ephedra.

The drug has also been linked to heart attacks and paralysis.

Manufacturers of ephedra are also facing lawsuits and a possible ban by the United States Food and Drug Administration.

A spokesman for Hong Kong's Department of Health confirmed ephedra was not banned in the city and was commonly used by traditional Chinese herbal doctors.

But he said ephedrine, an alkaloid form of ephedra, was common in more than 500 cold and flu products available in Hong Kong pharmacies.

Under existing regulations, ephedrine had to be registered, the spokesman said.

Ephedrine is also used in the production of methamphetamines such as Ice.

The spokesman also said traditional Chinese medicine practitioners would have to begin registering their stocks of ephedra at the end of the year when new industry guidelines were introduced.