Citing ABC7 I-Team reporting, Sen. Dick Durbin vows fight against tianeptine or 'gas station heroin'

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Tom Jones WLS logo
Tuesday, March 19, 2024
Sen. Dick Durbin vows fight against 'gas station heroin'
Sen. Dick Durbin is taking action on tianeptine, known as "gas station heroin," which has opioid-like effects and can cause death, but is easily found for purchase over the counter

CHICAGO (WLS) -- As sales of the widely available opioid-like supplement tianeptine, known as "gas station heroin," skyrocket, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) on Monday sent pointed letters to several industry executives aimed at stopping the "pain and suffering" and sometimes death of people who use the over-the-counter capsules and elixirs.

The press by Durbin, Illinois' senior U.S. senator, comes less than three weeks after an investigation by the ABC7 I-Team uncovered tianeptine was being openly sold on the shelves of gas stations, convenience stores and vape shops across the Chicago area.

While the so-called "gas station heroin" has already been banned by some states including Indiana, it is still legal for sale in Illinois.

"At a gas station you can buy a product that seems to be legal and seems to be tested, which could kill you or someone in your family. That's how dangerous it is" Sen. Durbin told the I-Team in an interview on Monday in Chicago. "We ought to take it more seriously."

To that end, late Monday Sen. Durbin sent letters to Loren Israelsen, the president and founder of the United Natural Products Alliance in Salt Lake City; Michael McGuffin president of the American Herbal Products Association in Silver Spring, Md.; Steve Mister, president and chief executive officer of the Council for Responsible Nutrition in Washington, D.C.; and Scott Melville, president and chief executive officer of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association also in Washington. In the letters Durbin urges the organizations "to take action against the inclusion of dangerous or illegal ingredients in products marketed as dietary supplements in the United States."

READ MORE: Tianeptine, known as 'gas station heroin,' is easy to find, potentially dangerous to use

His letter points the executives to fatalities that have been linked to "gas station heroin."

"For example, ABC Chicago recently reported that Chris Haggarty, a 37-year-old man from Lorain County, Ohio, died after taking a supplement that included tianeptine last November," he writes. "According to his mother, Karen Haggarty, he was 12 months sober from alcohol, but had struggled on the day of his death. Chris went to his local gas station and bought 'Neptune's Fix,' believing that it would help soothe him. But, it did not. He fell asleep, had a heart attack, and died. Karen has one wish: to 'help other families to avoid going through what [she is] going through right now.'"

The Durbin push to crack down on tianeptine cited a surge in calls to America's Poison Centers; from "11 calls related to tianeptine between 2000 and 2013" to 1,100 calls between 2019 and 2023, including 400 such calls in 2023 alone. According to Durbin, "Tianeptine has caused Americans to experience rapid heartbeat, nausea, vomiting, and coma. Tragically, it even has contributed to the deaths of some individuals."

The I-Team has been in touch with all four organizations that are receiving letters from Durbin. One, the Council for Responsible Nutrition, has stated that "CRN strongly advises consumers to be vigilant and avoid any products that list tianeptine as an ingredient or make unverified health claims."

RELATED: Ohio mother says tianeptine, or 'gas station heroin,' killed her son, lobbies for ban

According to its online statement, "CRN remains committed to consumer safety and the integrity of the dietary supplement industry. We work continuously with regulatory bodies, including the FDA, to help deter the inclusion of illegal and unsafe substances in products marketed as dietary supplements."

And a statement from the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) reads in part: "CHPA commends Senator Durbin for recognizing the need for a modernized regulatory structure for dietary supplements that will further protect public health. Recent reports about the presence of tianeptine in products fraudulently marketed by unscrupulous companies as dietary supplements underscore the need for key regulatory modernizations to protect public health. Priorities such as mandatory product listing, increasing inspection capacity, and clarifying FDA's authority to better facilitate enforcement against unlawfully marketed products would enhance the Agency's ability to identify and more quickly remove illegitimate products from the market."

The Chicago area threat from tianeptine is one symptom of a wider problem across the U.S. caused by unregulated supplements, says the ranking Illinois senator. So, Sen. Durbin on Monday also announced that this year he "will reintroduce the Dietary Supplement Listing Act of 2022 (S. 4090) to address this issue." When the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (P.L. 103-417) became law in 1994, Durbin states that "there were 4,000 products marketed as dietary supplements in the United States. Now, FDA estimates that there are more than 95,000 of these products on the market. But, the agency does not know the true number-let alone what ingredients are included in those products."

Durbin has set a deadline of April 15 for the supplement associations to respond to his letters, which also request "a written plan to work with responsible supplement manufacturers to remove tianeptine and other dangerous or illegal ingredients from the supplement market."

"Let me be clear" states Durbin in the Monday mailings, "we must take substantive action to ensure that other mothers, fathers, siblings, and friends do not experience the same pain and suffering that Karen (Haggarty) faces now."

As the I-Team reported last month, the FDA is now warning people not to buy any tianeptine products, including those sold under the brand name Neptune's Fix.

The manufacturer has since issued a voluntary recall, but added their "distribution channels have not reported any adverse events from the use of its products."

The Food and Drug Administration is now citing reports of serious health risks associated with tianeptine, including death.

Tianeptine is not approved by the FDA for medical use, and the agency said it does not qualify as a dietary supplement. Overseas, it is sometimes prescribed by doctors as an antidepressant.

Durbin said FDA officials don't have the authority to regulate such products.

"The industry is trying to stay away and a lot of people say, I want my freedom to choose my vitamins. I do, too. Vitamins are not the problem. It's these dietary supplements that claim to cure AIDS, claim to be like opioids and such. It's just baloney. They're making these claims to sell the product and so on that are very dangerous," he said.

Sen. Durbin has been trying to regulate dietary supplements for a long time, but told the I-Team "the industry is too damn powerful. They have political clout and they've held back my efforts for years. I wanted to have a bottom line that says, if you want to sell a product in America, you've got to go to the Food and Drug Administration, tell them the name of the product, give them a copy of the label and tell them the ingredients."

America's Poison Centers can answer questions about tianeptine or provide emergency assistance at 1-800-222-1222.

Full text of the letter to the Council for Responsible Nutrition can be found here.

Full text of the letter to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association can be found here.

Full text of the letter to the American Herbal Products Association can be found here.

Full text of the letter to the United Natural Products Alliance can be found here.