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Tightening of Lid On Ephedrine Urged

MLB Wants To Include It In Drug Policy; Some Seek Prescription-Only Status

Feb 21, 2003 | The Baltimore Sun

The family of fallen Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler headed home to Oregon yesterday, but questions remain about what to do about the weight-loss drug that may have contributed to his death.

Major League Baseball is expected to make another push to place ephedrine on the list of restricted substances covered by the sport's new drug policy, though that can only be done with the cooperation of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

The Food and Drug Administration already has commissioned a study by the Rand Corporation to quantify the possibly deadly effects of the substance, which is sold over the counter as a weight-loss aid and legal stimulant.

Congress may even get involved now that ephedrine has found its way back into the headlines - about 18 months after the heatstroke death of Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer was linked to the drug.

In each case, it could be months before anything is done to limit the use of the substance, if anything is done at all.

"What's happened here certainly will move everyone in that direction with more haste," said Orioles owner Peter Angelos. "I think members of Congress certainly are aware of what's happened with Steve Bechler.

"Hopefully, all of them are accountable, and they'll take the necessary steps to get these off the counter."

Angelos said baseball owners are hoping the players union joins them in an effort to persuade Congress to make ephedrine a prescription-only product. The union resisted an ownership attempt last summer to put the supplement on the restricted list, and figures to maintain that position as long as ephedrine products remain legal for over-the-counter sales.

However, union officials probably wouldn't mind if the federal government took the decision off their hands.

"It's hard to tell adults what they can and can't do when it's legal," said Orioles pitcher Rick Helling, a member of the union's executive board, who has been a proponent of stricter rules regarding performance-enhancing drugs and supplements.

"If the FDA was to come out and say that it's harmful and that it can cause serious injury and death - and either ban it or make it a prescription drug - that would take the decision out of it."

In the meantime, Helling said union officials and player representatives will get together by conference call to discuss the issue soon. Union head Donald Fehr said he may address the subject this weekend.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig also has not commented publicly about the issue, but major-league sources have indicated management officials are working behind the scenes to enlist the union in an effort to put restrictions on ephedrine products.

"That's what we would like to happen," said Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan. "We want it to be a Major League Baseball policy. That is where the journey should end up."

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., asked yesterday about the situation, seemed unlikely to favor state legislation to ban ephedrine products.

"That's really in the FDA's purview," Ehrlich said. "This is an over-the-counter drug, which makes the story quite alarming. I don't know enough about the drug. The fact that it is over the counter has everyone's attention. You can abuse over-the- counter drugs, as well. Right now, my first inclination would be to view it as a federal issue, an FDA-type issue. But we're certainly monitoring it."

So far, apparently only one local government entity in the United States has taken an active approach to ephedrine. Suffolk County, N.Y., has passed legislation banning over-the-counter sale of non-medical ephedrine products.

"We'll be talking to [Maryland health secretary designee] Nelson [Sabatini] and his health folks about that," Ehrlich said. "It's just a good lesson. You learn lessons sometimes the horrible way, whether it's your car idling with the snow or whether it's over-the-counter drugs. You can abuse even very legal products."

FDA commissioner Mark McClellan confirmed this week that the agency is considering a ban on the ephedrine-based supplements. The FDA is weighing a study released this month that reported 1,178 side effects among ephedra users last year.

Even in the wake of Bechler's death, some Orioles players say they feel confident using ephedrine products, but most agree more needs to be done to identify the health risks associated with them.

"I think we need to get more information," said second baseman Jerry Hairston, who has acknowledged using ephedrine occasionally. "It's just one of those things where it's legal, it's sold over the counter and it's not just baseball players who use it. There are people who work out, people in everyday life."

That could change if the FDA can make a compelling enough case for banning ephedrine. Currently, the drug is classified as an herbal supplement and is not subject to FDA approval. The FDA must prove a supplement presents a clear danger to public health before it can ban over-the-counter sales.


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