A diet drug is at the centre of a lawsuit that killed two Vancouver teenagers. The woman who caused the accident and the parents of the victims, are suing the makers of Xenadrine. They're arguing the drug can cause psychotic episodes.

In May 1998, Kimberly Brooks and Monique Ishikawa were killed when their car was rear-ended and then burst into flames. Julia Campagna was charged with manslaughter but a judge ruled in 1999 that she was not criminally responsible by reason of mental illness.

Campagna's lawyers argued the herbal weight loss supplement Xenadrine made her psychotic. Campagna says she was delusional at the time of the accident.

Xenadrine is the most popular diet drug in the U.S. It is often used by weightlifters. Xenadrine is not approved for use in Canada, however people have been able to order it online or get it from illegal distributors.

Xenadrine is made from a combination of ephedrine, caffeine and aspirin.

Since 1993, at least 60 adverse reactions have been reported in Canada, including two suicides which may not be linked to the supplement. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration has gathered 80 reports of deaths linked to ephedra products.

Ephedra is available in Canada but only as nasal decongestant.

Health Canada issued a warning in June advising Canadians not to take any dietary supplements containing ephedra. The concern is over ephedra mixed with caffeine. Many of the supplements include caffeine as an ingredient.

Adverse effects include dizziness, tremors, headaches and irregularities in heart rate, seizures, psychosis, heart attacks, and stroke.

"We believe that when you take an ephedra-based product, mix it with some other...chemical like caffeine...you're, in essence, making a speed cocktail," says Mark Scheer, a lawyer representing the families.

'A safe natural product'

The company, Cytodyne, denies the product causes pyschosis. The product label warns "do not use if you are at risk or being treated for psychiatric disease."

The label on Xenadrine also warns against taking the supplement if you are at risk for, or being treated for, 14 ailments including high blood pressure, liver problems, diabetes, anxiety, depression, stroke or thyroid problems.

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  • Ephedra products have come under increasing scrutiny as other victims file lawsuits. Pat and Harold Givens are suing the makers of "Youngevity Fat Metabolizer" because they say it caused their daughter's stroke.

    April Givens died from a brain hemorrhage at 21. She was trying to lose five pounds.

    "They advertised this as a safe natural product without giving you any clue that if you're a healthy normal person that there is a danger," says Pat Givens.

    Givens says her daughter followed instructions and took the correct dosage.

    The ephedra industry has fought back. Several groups, which represent manufacturers and sellers of ephedra products, recently issued a news release saying their products are safe. The group cited 20 studies to prove its point.

    But one study, funded by the industry, did raise concerns. A St. Lukes-Roosevelt Hospital study in New York examined 35 healthy people who took ephedra. Eight dropped out because of side effects such as heart palpitations, chest pains and high blood pressure.

    "There are people who shouldn't take it," says Dr. John Cardellina, an industry spokesperson. "But there is a significant portion of the population that can benefit from the use of ephedra as long as they follow the guidance for the products."