The Buffalo News
By Anne Neville
Published: July 5, 2011, 12:00 AM
A new bill that will make it more difficult for people with eating disorders to buy a compound that induces vomiting has passed both houses of the State Legislature and awaits the signature of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
The bill, which will require that syrup of ipecac be taken off open shelves and kept behind a counter, was co-sponsored by Assemblyman Sam Hoyt and Sen. Patrick Gallivan.
The bill was pushed by Debbie Begeny of Kenmore, whose daughter, Heather, suffered from anorexia and bulimia and died of cardiac arrest at age 22 on March 9, 2003. After her daughter’s death, Begeny discovered that in the final weeks of her life, Heather had been using ipecac to induce vomiting.
“While I hail this as a victory, I don’t think it’s enough,” said Begeny. “But it’s a big step in the right direction.”
In the dark days after Heather’s death, Begeny sought legislation that would make ipecac available only by prescription. “That never flew,” she said. “They said it would never, ever pass like that.”
The bill proposed this year originally included clauses that required people buying ipecac to present identification and limited the number of bottles a person could buy at one time. Both of those restrictions were deleted from the bill before it passed the Legislature.
But if the bill is signed into law, customers will have to ask a pharmacist or store manager for ipecac.
“This will stop some, but not others,” says Begeny. “It will stop the timid but not the bold.”
Calling the passage of the bill “bittersweet,” Begeny says, “This legislation was a long time coming, and I wish it was around when my daughter was alive, when she needed it. But at least some other parent won’t have to deal with what I deal with.”
Syrup of ipecac, made from the roots of a tropical plant, has been used since the 18th century to cause vomiting after the accidental ingestion of poison. Until recently,
experts recommended that ipecac be kept in every home first-aid kit.
But the compound has fallen out of favor and been pulled from most pharmacy shelves. In late 2003, less than a year after Heather Begeny died, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that parents not keep ipecac in the house.
Dr. Milton Tenenbein, of the Manitoba poison control center and lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, said, “Unfortunately, the presence of ipecac in the home often results in its inappropriate use.”
The unintended side effects of ipecac can include prolonged vomiting and lethargy.
In the past five years, ipecac has become scarcer on store shelves. A spokesman for Walgreens says the company’s stores do not sell ipecac; a spokesman for Rite Aid says stores do not typically carry it. Wegmans Consumer Affairs Director Ann McCarthy says only seven of the company’s stores, none of them in Western New York, have the product in stock. Generally, Mc- Carthy says, demand is so low that as stores run out of ipecac, it is not reordered.
Begeny says she was familiar with ipecac because she works in physicians’ offices, but many people she spoke to after Heather’s death had never heard of it. The lack of awareness of the compound, she says, was “probably why Heather was able to buy six bottles at a time. After she died I found like 20 bottles hidden in her room.”
Begeny urges people who work in stores that sell ipecac to be “pro-active and aware. Everybody behind the pharmacy counter should know, and if they don’t know, they should be educated about what ipecac is and why it’s behind the counter, rather than on the shelf.” And staffers should be alert to customers who are buying multiple bottles of ipecac, says Begeny. “If somebody is buying it that way, they are abusing it.”
“I think this is a great law, and I think it will save lives,” says Begeny. “This has been going on since 2004. Every year he told me he wouldn’t give up on it, and he kept reintroducing it. I give him so many kudos for staying with it.”
Gallivan said, “This bill installs simple safeguards to ensure ipecac is sold safely and responsibly for its intended purposes, and will hopefully prevent any future tragedies like that experienced by the Begeny family.”
In addition to operating Featherweight Inc., a group that provides information about eating disorders and raises funds to help people with eating disorders pay for treatment, Begeny plans to continue to lobby to restrict sales of ipecac. “I would hope that this kind of legislation would go federal,” she says. “I have been talking to people in other states, telling them to contact their state legislators, but I really think it should be federal.”