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Time For A Change In World of Sport, Supplements

Feb 21, 2003 | USA Today

In an effort to feel better, to be better or to look better, humans are prone to try just about anything.

Ask any corner dealer, anyone behind the counter at a liquor store, any pharmacist, any health store employee, any Internet retailer, any plastic surgeon.

Legal or illegal, it makes no difference, business is booming in the self-improvement industry. According to Nutrition Business Journal, consumers spent 1.3 billion on ephedra products last year.

Sadly, it sometimes takes tragedy (often a death) to implement change.

What will Major League Baseball do in wake of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler's death?

The NFL banned ephedra shortly after Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer died in August 2001. An autopsy did not turn up ephedra in Stringer's bloodstream, however a container of Ripped Fuel, a product containing ephedra, was found in Stringer's locker.

Northwestern's Rashidi Wheeler died in August 2001 because of asthma complications. Though it did not cause his death, ephedra was found in Wheeler's system. Wheeler died during an unofficial workout, and the NCAA tightened its policies regarding offseason workouts in light of Wheeler's death.

Overweight and not in great shape coming into spring training, Bechler had been taking the weight-loss supplement Xenadrine RFA-1, which contains ephedra and is made by Cytodyne Technologies. Toxicology reports won't be available for 2-3 weeks, but a Broward County medical examiner said that Xenadrine may have been a factor in Bechler's death.

The medical examiner also said Bechler died of multiorgan failure caused by heatstroke. Belcher's body temperature reached 108 degrees. A side effect of ephedra is heatstroke. Being overweight and/or out of shape can exacerbate the situation.

Baseball has turned a blind eye toward apparent steroid use. Will it do the same with ephedra? From my easy chair, the answer is a no-brainer. An Olympic medalist can have a medal taken away if it is discovered the athletes used ephedra.

MLB should ban it until further tests are completed, and the NBA and NHL should follow suit. (Phoenix Suns forward Tom Gugliotta suffered a seizure just before boarding a team bus in 1999. Doctors blamed it on gamma butyrolactone, or GBL, a chemical found in the supplement Googs had been using to sleep better. These supplements are unpredictable.)

In the office Monday, sports staffers wondered why Bechler's death wasn't getting as much attention as Stringer's or Wheeler's. Was it because he wasn't well known? Was it because he was a talented collegiate?

Regardless, Bechler's death deserves the same treatment, and it appears to be receiving it, albeit gradually. Not because of whom he was or wasn't but because of whom he might save. Your child, my cousin, the neighbor kid, your best friend's brother.

The barrage of ominous comments from health officials is frightening yet not surprising.

Asked his thoughts on ephedra, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said, "I wouldn't use it, would you?"

FDA commissioner Mark McClellan told USA TODAY a ban on ephedra is "something we definitely are considering."

Where were these comments before Belcher's death?

Why can anyone walk into a store and get this stuff? Is there an answer that doesn't involve money? You can get about 100 pills of the same stuff Bechler was taking for about 30 bucks on several Web sites.

(Timing award: As I got ready to leave work Thursday, an e-mail popped into the inbox. Subject: "Oops ... our mistake is your fat loss." The ad offered a 30-day supply of a "high-speed fat-loss pill" for $9.95. The spam offered an ephedra-free version and the regular version, containing ephedra.)

For some illogical reason, the Food and Drug Administration does not have the power to ban dietary supplements before they go on the market.

The FDA can only take action after the product is released and then is determined unsafe. Seems a little backward to me. As is the case with conventional drugs, dietary supplements should be proven safe and effective before the average 15-year-old gets access.

In 1997, the FDA wanted to put strict restrictions on ephedra. But the U.S. General Accounting Office questioned the FDA's concerns and told the FDA it needed to provide more evidence to support its call for restrictions. Seems the GAO should make makers of dietary supplements provide evidence of safety first, not the other way around. It's just not baseball's policies that are out of whack.

Products containing ephedra have been linked to 88 deaths and nearly 1,500 reports of health problems, including strokes, heart attacks and seizures, according to the FDA. While these reports do not prove cause and effect, it seems the numbers should raise an eyebrow or two within the GAO.

As is the case with many problems, blame is easy to spread. Who wants to claim responsibility? No one, what with million-dollar lawsuits loitering.

The makers of products containing ephedra need to stand in there and absorb accountability. On the Cytodyne's Web site, life-changing words describe Xenadrine RFA-1.

"Now you, or anyone you know, can lose significant amounts of stubborn weight and get back the lean, toned body of your youth. … With Xenadrine at your side, your days of being overweight … are over!"

There are the requisite disclaimers, but I get the hunch those are there for legal reasons, not safety ones.

On a Cytodyne's Web page titled "Xenadrine In The News," there is no mention of Bechler's death.

As jaded as I am, I'm banking on a positive result.

Better education, restrictions on unsafe supplements, a change in the way products are approved for use can equate to a life saved.

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