CVS, Eckerd Join Walgreen and GNC in Abandoning Controversial Product

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In yet another setback for the controversial herbal ingredient ephedra, the nation's second- and third-largest drugstore chains said they will stop selling all ephedra-based diet products.

CVS Corp., headquartered in Woonsocket, R.I., will halt all ephedra supplement sales at its 4,100 U.S. stores by Aug. 1. Eckerd Corp., based in Clearwater, Fla., has already begun clearing all ephedra-based products from the shelves of its 2,690 stores.

Cautious statements
Spokesmen for CVS and Eckerd were careful to say they believe ephedra is safe when used as directed. Still, both join Walgreen Corp. -- the country's largest drugstore chain -- which does not carry ephedra-based supplements, and General Nutrition Centers (GNC), which stopped selling products containing ephedra in May.

Both CVS and Eckerd had stopped including ephedra-based products in their flyers and advertisements several months ago.

Drug-store sales
"Though we do believe they're safe when used properly, we just made a business decision to ban the product chain-wide," CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis said. CVS carried two main brands of ephedra-based products, Twin Laboratories Inc.'s TwinLabs and NVE Pharmaceuticals' Stacker series. Drug stores accounted for a total of $125 million in ephedra-based diet supplement sales last year, but Mr. DeAngelis said, "We do not expect [the loss in sales] to be material."

An Eckerd spokesman said the decision in part was based on the fact that communities throughout the country have begun to ban ephedra products, and many were communities in which Eckerd maintained a store.

FDA: 120 deaths from ephedra
Ephedra is a weight-loss herb also known as ma huang. The Food and Drug Administration said ephedra has been linked to heart problems and more than 120 deaths in the last 10 years, but it has yet to decide whether to halt the sale of ephedra-based products entirely.

Sixteen manufacturers of ephedra-based dietary products have been named in a class-action lawsuit, and one of the industry leaders, Metabolife International Inc., faced a 25% loss in sales in 2002. Earlier this year, Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler collapsed and died during a spring training workout in Florida and ephedra was found in his system.

Purchased online
Whether the decisions by CVS and Eckerd sound the death-knell for ephedra remains to be seen, however. Most of the manufacturers of ephedra-based weight loss supplements maintain Web sites through which the products can be purchased. And some, including Metabolife and NVE Pharmaceuticals, have begun offering ephedra-free products.

Messages left with Metabolife, NVE and Twin Laboratories were not returned.

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