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Health activists seek ban on diet products for minors

Backers see danger in the pressure to look perfect

Public health professionals are seeking a ban of the sale of dietary supplements such as these to children.Melissa Bailey/STAT

At age 12, Eileen Merisola started buying weight-loss pills off the shelf at a local pharmacy — a habit she says set her on a path to a decadelong battle with anorexia and bulimia.

Merisola and fellow activists, including a half dozen public health professionals from Longwood Medical Area, are heading to Beacon Hill Wednesday to urge lawmakers to get such pills out of kids' hands. The group backs House Bill 3471, which would make Massachusetts the first state to ban the sale of dietary supplements marketed for weight loss and muscle-building to kids under 18. The bill would also require retailers to move the products from open shelves to behind the counter.


The products are dangerous in the hands of vulnerable young people who feel pressure to "look perfect," argued S. Bryn Austin, director of STRIPED, an initiative at Harvard's public health school and Boston Children's Hospital to train health professionals to prevent eating disorders. Gummy candy products are extra worrisome because they're more appealing to children, she said.

The Food and Drug Administration does not screen dietary supplements for safety before they hit the shelves, as it does prescription drugs. The FDA pulls them from the market only after they've done harm — as it did with the diet pill OxyElite Pro, which was linked to one death and dozens of cases of liver damage in 2013.

Dietary supplements have been found to contain harmful ingredients such as pesticides, prescription drugs, heavy metals, and the powerful stimulant BMPEA, Austin said. Even concentrated green tea extract, which may seem like health food, has been linked to serious liver injury, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Dan Fabricant, head of the Natural Products Association, a trade group for 2,000 supplement makers and sellers, pledged to fight the bill.


"I think the premise is crazy," said Fabricant, who used to run the FDA's division of dietary supplement programs. Flintstones Vitamins, which contain Vitamin D, are "muscle-building," he argued. Milk has been marketed that way as well, he said — "should that be put behind the counter, too?"

Activists implore state to save garden

Children’s plans to bulldoze Prouty Garden in the spring to make way for an 11-story clinical building.WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2013

In a last-ditch effort, an activist group is asking the state to step in and save a beloved garden at Children's Hospital.

Children's plans to bulldoze Prouty Garden, a 23,000-square-foot oasis designed by the Olmsted brothers, to make way for an 11-story clinical building with a new intensive care unit for newborns and a pediatric heart center. Children's has secured all major approvals and aims to break ground this spring.

Last week, the Friends of Prouty Garden asked the state's top environmental official to force Children's to revise its plans.

The hospital proposes new indoor, outdoor, and rooftop gardens. But the activists argue these "scattered" pockets of greenery fail to live up to Children's pledge to keep alive the "spirit" of Prouty Garden, which was endowed by the novelist Olive Higgins Prouty a half-century ago.

The Friends group says it has raised $35,000 and gathered 12,000 signatures.

In August, the group also asked Attorney General Maura Healey to intervene. Both Healey and the state's environment secretary are reviewing the requests.

Meanwhile, Prouty's descendants, who manage her endowment through the Olive Higgins Prouty Foundation, are weighing in. In an Aug. 18 letter to the hospital, the foundation's board, including five of her grandchildren and one great-grandchild, said it is "saddened" to see the garden go — but pledged unanimous support for the hospital's plans.


Harvard bike racks are going vertical

So many people are pedaling into Longwood that Harvard is stacking bikes on top of bikes.

This fall, Harvard plans to reconfigure all of its bike cages in the medical district so the spaces are wider and commuters can lift their bikes up to chest height and park them above other bikes.

The double-decker cages will add 150 spaces, reducing "bike-on-bike violence," in which bikes damage other bikes when commuters try to cram them into the racks, said Kevin O'Leary, security manager at Harvard Medical School.

There are 3,371 bike parking spots at Longwood — a 31 percent increase since 2012, according to MASCO, the neighborhood's business group.

Holding court: the mayor of Longwood

The mayor of Longwood leans against a stone wall near the Longwood T stop, resting a stack of Spare Change News on his hefty paunch.

He has parked there for 15 years, hawking a street newspaper about homelessness to the cancer researchers, emergency room nurses, and Harvard doctoral students who stream by on their way to the Longwood Medical Area.

"Hey, kiddo!" he hollers when he spots a familiar face. "Hey, doc!"

"Hey, Eddie! Hey, Eddie!" come the replies.

Eddie Larsen, who's 46, first arrived in Longwood as a teenage patient, seeking treatment for Crohn's disease. During a decade-long stretch of homelessness about 15 years ago, he returned to sell newspapers for a dollar a pop.


Larsen is now among the top-performing of the 60 or so street vendors who sell Spare Change News, according to Samuel Weems, an editor at the Boston-based publication.

He sometimes sells at North Station, to bankers and lawyers whom he describes as more "nose to the ground." Larsen prefers his perch at Longwood, though, where people take the time to talk. Some customers have given him winter clothes. One even gave him a sleeping bag.

Larsen still visits Longwood's doctors in a formal setting for treatment of two chronic diseases. He also gets the occasional medical advice on the street.

"Are you drinking water?" called out a hospital staffer one hot afternoon. Larsen wore his summer uniform of jeans and a navy polo shirt. His bald head poked high above the rush-hour crowd.

"Yeah," he yelled. "Water and Gatorade!"

Larsen, who has no children, lives alone; he calls his customers his extended family.

"It's a lifeline for me," he said.

He declares himself the "mayor of Longwood" —
a title that has not yet been recognized by the powers-that-be.

"He's not someone I've ever heard of," said Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim, who represents Longwood. "I've never gotten off at that stop."

Not that he contests Larsen's claim to the ceremonial post. Zakim said he welcomes anyone who's active in civic life: "I think that's great."

Melissa Bailey can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @mmbaily. Follow STAT on Twitter @statnews.