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Issue: "Iraq: The other caucuses," Jan. 31, 2004

Feds and Ephedra

THE U.S. FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION PLANS to ban the sale of ephedra later this spring, citing at least 155 deaths associated with the use of weight-loss products, like Xenadrine RFA-1, that contain the herbal stimulant. Many consumers, though, are ignoring that warning.

California, New York, and Illinois already have imposed statewide bans on the sale of products containing ephedra, and national drugstore chains GNC, Walgreens, Eckerd, Rite Aid, and Wal-Mart pulled the products from their shelves last fall. But following the FDA's announcement, newspapers across the country began reporting a run on remaining ephedra supplies.

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"I think it shows that many people use these products and want them to be available," said Judy Blatman, vice president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition. "It's our advice that because FDA is telling people to stop using these supplements, people should stop."

Ephedra can be used safely, Ms. Blatman said, but consumers aren't following directions. That's why CRN, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing suppliers and manufacturers in the dietary supplement industry, has been asking FDA to take definitive action on ephedra.

That's difficult in a $19 billion industry that is largely unregulated: Federal law requires that the FDA prove a supplement is harmful before taking it off the market. Conversely, prescription drug manufacturers must prove their products are safe before gaining FDA approval. "You can't ban a (supplement) simply based on bad publicity," Ms. Blatman said. "FDA has to have a sound, rational basis that will hold up under the law."

Hiring rise?

THE NATION'S UNEMPLOYMENT RATE FELL TO 5.7 percent in December-its lowest point in more than a year. But the U.S. Labor Department says just 1,000 new jobs were created nationwide last month, raising new fears about the strength of the current economic recovery.

Undercut by weak holiday hiring by retailers and continued job losses at U.S. factories, job gains fell well below those forecasted by market analysts. In fact, the more than 300,000 people who simply quit looking for jobs are credited with the .2 percent drop in the jobless rate.

Still, a silver lining remains: Despite reporting a 41st consecutive month of job losses, manufacturing industry leaders remain confident that job growth will result from the recent increases in economic productivity.

"Manufacturing production did not turn consistently positive until September, so it would be a little premature to think that employment would already begin to follow suit," said Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, D.C. Mr. Jasinowski expects manufacturers to begin hiring workers in the first quarter of 2004.

Balance Sheet

The U.S. Department of Transportation is limiting the number of hours truckers can drive in one day without adequate rest. Trucking companies, though, said consumers should expect higher prices as a result of the need to hire more drivers and buy more trucks to keep the same amount of goods moving nationwide.

The nation's No. 2 electronics retailer, Circuit City Stores, Inc., continues to lose ground to industry leader Best Buy Co. With Best Buy expecting same-store sales to increase as much as 8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2003, Circuit City announced its sales dropped again in December. Still, Circuit City expects to open 65 to 70 superstores in the next fiscal year, many of which will be upgraded stores in existing markets.

The Toyota Prius, the world's first commercially mass-produced hybrid car, was named 2004 North American Car of the Year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Its price is around $20,000, and Toyota expects annual sales to top 35,000 this year.

Santa Teresita Hospital became the first California hospital to close its doors after the state implemented a new nurse-to-patient ratio law on Jan. 1. In response, the California Healthcare Association has sued the state to allow hospitals to go below the ratios to cover lunches and breaks. When fully implemented in 2008, ratios will range from one nurse per patient in trauma units to one for every five patients in medical and surgery units.

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