New York Fights Eating Disorders By Restricting Ipecac

Ipecac is being closely regulated in New York. The drug induces vomiting and has long been associated with the tragic anorexia death of Karen Carpenter.

In a move that may be followed by other states, New York has instituted new restrictions on the sale of ipecac syrup, a drug that is used to induce vomiting in poison victims.  Ipecac, which is derived from a South American plant, has a history of abuse by people with eating disorders.  The bill that was signed by Governor Cuomo will not outlaw ipecac, but it will require pharmacies to move the syrup from open shelves to behind the counter.  The hope is that making the drug less accessible will limit its availability to people suffering from bulimia, anorexia and binge eating.

A New York mother named Debbie Begeny was instrumental in getting the bill before the legislature.  Her daughter Heather, who suffered from anorexia and bulimia, died at age 22 from cardiac arrest.  After her daughter’s death, Begeny found 20 bottles of ipecac in Heather’s room and realized that she had been using it to induce vomiting in the final weeks of her life.

Begeny would have liked to have seen ipecac become available by prescription only, but that restriction was removed from the final legislation.  Instead, customers will have to ask a pharmacist or store manager for ipecac.  While Begeny doesn’t think this will stop ipecac abuse, she concedes that it’s a step in the right direction.

For years, pediatricians and child-care experts recommended keeping ipecac in the family first aid kit to aid in treating accidental poisoning.  However, the administration of ipecac carries some risk since vomiting should not always take place when a poison is caustic.  Because of the risks in administering ipecac for poisoning and the potential for irreversible damage to the heart when ipecac is abused, in 2003 the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its position on ipecac and no longer recommends that it be kept in the home.

The most famous victim of ipecac poisoning is Karen Carpenter, an American pop singer who died of heart failure in 1983.  Carpenter, who was 32 at the time of her death, had suffered from anorexia for several years.  Although her family thought she used laxatives rather than ipecac to maintain a low body weight, the Los Angeles coroner pronounced the cause of her death as complications from anorexia nervosa and heart damage brought on by emetine, a chemical that is present in ipecac.

According to New York Senator Patrick Gallivan, sponsor of the new bill, ipecac has proven to be only marginally useful in cases of accidental poisoning but is a serious public health concern because of the high rate of abuse.