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Ernest Istook Backed Diet Pills Before FDA Ban

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook pushed to keep ephedra-based diet pills on the market and free of certain restrictions at the same time that his former chief of staff was a registered lobbyist for companies that made the pills, The Oklahoman reported.

The Republican congressman, who is running for governor this year, wrote letters to the secretary of Health and Human Services and a House subcommittee chairman seeking to keep the diet pills on the market. The Food and Drug Administration banned them two years ago amid concerns about consumer safety.

Istook told The Oklahoman's Washington bureau that he never publicized his efforts and said they weren't ``a major initiative.'' Istook, R-Warr Acres, attributed his interest in dietary supplements to consumers' rights and constituents' concerns.

But when Istook wrote the letters regarding ephedra-based diet pills in 1999 and 2003, his former chief of staff, Brian Lopina, was a registered lobbyist for companies that made the pills.

In 2003, Lopina was a lobbyist for Metabolife, once a leading maker of ephedra-based pills. Istook's 2002 re-election campaign received $22,000 from Metabolife executives and family members. Istook adamantly denies that he took any action regarding the dietary supplements because of Lopina or the donations.

``I've done the right thing, and I've done it for the right reason,'' he said.

Istook's office produced a copy of a letter to show the congressman's interest in ephedra-based diet pills predated the donations and Lopina's representation of Metabolife.

That letter was written in 1999 _ two years before Lopina registered as a lobbyist for Metabolife _ and was addressed to Rep. Joe Skeen, who was then the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture.

The letter urged Skeen to accept an amendment blocking proposed FDA action to require that ephedra-based diet products be labeled with a new, lower recommended dosage. The proposed regulation also would have required labels instructing consumers not to use the products for more than seven days.

``This new FDA regulation attempts to control a problem that doesn't exist and set a standard that would end the use of herbal ephedra,'' Istook's letter states.

When Istook wrote the 1999 letter, Lopina was a registered lobbyist for Weider Nutritional International, a dietary supplement maker based in Salt Lake City, Utah, that also marketed ephedra-based products.

On forms filed with the U.S. Senate, Lopina said he was lobbying the House and Senate on the ``proposed FDA rule on dietary supplement labeling.''

In response to questions earlier this year about the matter, Istook's office gave The Oklahoman a statement saying Istook had ``supported consumers' rights to use dietary supplements and health foods'' since his first year in Congress, in 1993. ``Despite his long history of supporting the dietary supplement industry, only once (in 2002) did people in the industry help him politically,'' the statement says.

Lopina now works for Patton Boggs, a prestigious legal and lobbying firm with a Washington office. He declined to comment to The Oklahoman.
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