Accuracy in Media

When the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA, announced a ban on the natural supplement ephedra, NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw said that the government was moving to “protect” people. That was the tone of the coverage. In fact, the federal government was preventing Americans from freely choosing an herbal product that has been in use for thousands of years and which has been taken safely by millions of Americans to lose weight and boost energy.

On the same day, in a decision that got too little attention, the FDA announced that the anthrax vaccine was “safe and effective” for our troops, even though federal U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan reviewed the evidence and found that it had not been approved for exposure to weaponized or inhaled anthrax. This case sheds light on whether the FDA truly “protects” people.

The anthrax vaccine has been sold as a defense against anthrax as a weapon, but injuries and health problems have afflicted some who have taken the vaccine. Some deaths have also been attributed to it. Hundreds of military personnel have refused to take the shots. Some have been allowed to leave the service, while others have been court-martialed.

Before that federal judge had ruled in the case, former FDA inspector Sammie Young had come forward to tell us that the anthrax program had bypassed the FDA’s drug-approval process. Young said the vaccine had been approved for those who come into contact with animals, a source of the disease. It was approved for animal handlers and veterinarians. It was never approved the way the Defense Department intended it?as a defense against an aerosol version of anthrax. In order to be approved for that use it has to go through various testing procedures, and that was never done. That made it “experimental” or “investigational,” in the words of the judge.

At the FDA news conference announcing the ban on ephedra, an FDA commissioner said that it “appears” that ephedra is linked to strokes, heart problems, and death. But there is no scientifically established causal connection. In promoting the ephedra ban, the media have repeatedly cited the tragic case of Baltimore pitcher Steve Bechler, whose death has been “linked” to the substance. The media don’t bother to explain that while there was ephedra in his system, he in fact died from heatstroke.

Bechler was working out with the Orioles during warm and humid weather and was out-of-shape, overweight, on a diet and hadn’t eaten much solid food over the previous two days. He also reportedly had liver problems and borderline high blood-pressure. He took three pills with ephedra when he should have taken only two. In another highly-publicized case, a 16-year-old boy who died “after taking ephedra” should not have had legal access to the supplement and took far too much of it with his buddies while performing sports. The campaign against ephedra has been led by the Naderite Public Citizen Group, which has links to the trial lawyers. They hope to make millions of dollars by taking dietary supplement companies to court and blaming them for health problems.

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