Next month lawmakers will consider a bill to put some diet pills and muscle-building supplements behind the counter for minors. Some, like 36-year-old Kristy McMillan of Watertown, say this bill could be a lifesaver.

“I struggled with an eating disorder for 21 years," said McMillan, "using diet pills off and on during that whole time. I started when I was 15.”  

McMillan says she thought the pills would improve what she saw as a less than perfect figure, and consuming them became a habit,

“I would feel light-headed, I fainted multiple times, just sometimes [was] sick to my stomach. The diet pills, the ones that would have caffeine or green tea, ... anytime I was taking it I could tell the difference in my heart.”

Doctors at the Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA) have studied the effects of diet pills and supplements and say they are linked to heart disease, stroke and liver failure. They also say that the risks are higher for young people, because they tend to experiment with different kinds of pills.

Dr. Elisabeth Poorman of the CHA says studies have even found illegal drugs and banned substances in some diet pills,

“Unlike medications that you have to prove ... are safe and effective before being put onto the market," she said, "dietary supplements ... are assumed to be safe, and in some cases they even contained completely banned substances like crystal methamphetamine.”

Poorman continued, “A lot of weight-loss supplements include a drug called sibutramine, which has in the past been used for weight loss but was very quickly pulled from the market because it is associated with heart attacks and strokes.”

McMillan says she started feeling ill during college.

“I started, probably in college, having abnormal heart tests and some heart palpitations, but the minute I stopped using the pills and started eating and gained a little bit more weight, everything went back to normal, and so in my mind I was invincible.”  

Because diet pills and supplements are not regulated, the ingredients are often a mystery, State Representative Kay Khan has introduced a bill that would put diet pills and muscle-building supplements behind the counter and off-limits to anyone under 18.

There is national opposition to the bill. The Natural Products Association issued a statement that said in part:

“This proposal would place onerous restrictions, most notably on small businesses. Dietary supplements are simply natural ingredients found in foods, and restricting access to them is unfair to Massachusetts consumers, hurts responsible retailers and drains the state budget through lost sales taxes. Nobody wins.” 

The National Products Association’s president will be in Boston when lawmakers hear the bill on October 17.

McMillan believes what lawmakers are proposing would have helped her. After years of treatment, she is finally free from her pill addiction and eating disorder, but the damage was done.

“My husband and I got pregnant  ... and I miscarried," she said. "My heart was not strong enough to carry a pregnancy, and we were advised against getting pregnant again, so we can’t have children because of the eating disorder, the diet pills, all that.”

McMillan and her husband adopted a daughter. She says if her daughter ever wants to know about diet pills, she will tell her to think about her health.