Picture this: Perfect abs, slender legs, great arms and a butt that makes Sir-Mix-a-Lot cry. Now picture that all of this can be yours for a mere $49.99 that is, the cost of a month”s supply of diet pills. Before you run out to the nearest mall and pick up a 10-year supply, you might want to read up on both sides of this controversial topic.

Over-the-counter diet pills are becoming more and more popular by the day. Americans are getting fatter, and savvy business people are tapping into how they can make a fast, easy buck. Books, magazines and self-help tapes on the subject of weight loss are everywhere, and the public just can”t get enough. Within this craze, diet pills have become one of the most popular places to turn.

So what”s the harm in successfully making money? Well, here is where it gets complicated. Companies that distribute over-the-counter diet pills such as Metabolife stress the safe, effective qualities of their products. Over-the-counter diet pills are marketed as “herbal dietary supplements.” When people think of herbs, they think of natural substances, and consider these pills safe.

According to doctors and nutritionists, this idea is false. Many diet pills contain Ma Huang, a Chinese herb from which ephedrine is extracted.

“Because these pills are herbal products, people are misled to believe that these pills are all natural,” a pharmacist who wished to remain anonymous, at the Saline branch of CVS Pharmacy said. “But the drug ephedrine is the main appetite suppressant.”

According to the Food and Drug Administration, ephedrine can cause many dangerous side effects. The FDA has cited approximately 1,000 reports of these side effects including nervousness, dizziness, tremor, alternations in blood pressure or heart rate, headache, gastrointestinal distress, chest pain, myocardial infarctions (heart attacks), hepatitis, stroke, seizures, psychosis and 44 deaths.

Although these side effects have been cited, Mike Rothmiller, director of public relations at Metabolife, said that Metabolife, an over-the-counter diet pill containing ephedrine, is “safe and effective when taken as directed.”

“These reports of death are not properly investigated,” he said. “They are not based on fact and hard data, but instead are based on anecdotes.”

Recent studies performed by Harvard and Columbia Universities have proven that ephedra dietary supplements are safe and effective. Also, Cantox Health Sciences International assessed all available scientific information, focusing on 19 clinical trials, and found that ephedra was both safe and beneficial for weight loss at the 90 mg per day dosage. Cantox concluded that there is no association between serious adverse events and ephedra when consumed as directed.

Yet, many health professionals are still worried. Dr. Robert Winfield, Interim Director of University Health Services, disagrees that the dangers of ephedrine are exaggerated.

“At UHS, we discourage the use of anything containing ephedrine,” Winfield said. “One of the most dangerous side effects of this drug is severe stroke.”

Prescription diet pills that do not contain ephedrine are available at UHS, but the staff only uses them in specific types of cases.

“All of our staff are hesitant to use these drugs unless there are specific, serious medical health problems that need to be addressed,” Winfield said. “Diet pills can be helpful in assisting in weight loss when managing diabetes, and high blood pressure in the presence of severe obesity, however they are not a panacea and may have significant side effects.”

Although UHS regulates the distribution of diet pills, the FDA does not. Because these products are commonly marketed as dietary supplements, there is little or no pre-market review by FDA of their safety or effectiveness, no good dosing information and no monitoring advice.

Some consumer advocates are working to change these conditions. Barbara Michal founded the organization Halt Ephedrine Abuse Today after her son died of ephedrine use.

“Ephedrine is nothing more than speed,” Michal said. “It is a powerful cardiovascular and central nervous system stimulant and is as rewarding as cocaine.”

Michal is very frustrated by the losing battle against the diet pill industry.

“The FDA and other organizations have been fighting to get ephedrine off the market, but they are fighting a multi-billion dollar industry that is spending millions to squash the regulatory effort,” she said.

Most people that use diet pills are unaware of their dangers and their non-effectiveness. The diet pill industry stresses how effective their products are by publicizing success stories. An example of such a story goes like this: “Laura stepped on the scale and almost fainted. She had gained 100 pounds since the birth of her new baby girl. She knew she had to lose weight, but didn”t know where to begin. She tried (insert over-the-counter diet pill here) and within a few months, she was back to a perfect size 2 and feeling better than ever.”

These “success stories” do nothing but give people false hopes of effective weight loss. According to nutritionist Coco Newton, “diet pills, like any diet fads, are not a solution to the problem. Diet pills can actually cause people to gain weight because they do nothing to change food habits. Anyone who thinks they are a solution is wrong. People can become reliant on them, and at that point, have given the power to the pill.”

Newton also thinks that diet pills “are not designed for individual use. This public approach does not take into account the biochemical needs of each person.”

Whatever your decision may be regarding over-the-counter diet pills, both sides stress the importance of checking with a doctor before you begin any weight-loss system.

“If you are taking any prescription medication, these pills could cause dangerous reactions,” Newton said. “It”s not something to take lightly.”

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