Major League Baseball should not ban dietary supplements containing ephedra unless the government does, an official of the players’ union testified Thursday to lawmakers looking into health problems related to the herbal stimulant.
The issue is particularly relevant to baseball because of the death in February of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, who was taking a supplement with ephedra.
“The position of the players’ association has long been that players should not be prohibited from using any substances that the United States government has effectively determined are not unsafe for consumption by other American consumers,” said Eugene Orza, associate general counsel of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Following Bechler’s death, baseball commissioner Bud Selig banned players with minor league contracts from taking ephedra but did not prohibit major leaguers from using the stimulant.
Robert Manfred Jr., an executive vice president of Major League Baseball, explained Selig’s decision, saying the players’ union would not agree to ban any substance that could be purchased over the counter.
Other sports leagues ban ephedra and test players to make sure they are not using the product. They include the NFL and MLS, both of which sent representatives to Thursday’s hearing before the House panel.
They planned to call for more government regulation of ephedra.
“By taking decisive action, Congress can address many of the concerns related to the use of ephedrine by its constituency,” said Adolpho A. Birch III, the NFL’s counsel for labor relations.
Ephedra, which can be used to lose weight and boost athletic performance, has been linked to as many as 100 deaths. Health problems linked to the drug include strokes, heart attacks and seizures.
A 1994 law left dietary supplements largely unregulated. The Food and Drug Administration has said the statute prevents it from banning such products.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Wednesday that makers of dietary supplements should have to tell the FDA about potential side-effects, just as drug makers do. He urged Congress to revise the 1994 law.
“FDA is somewhat hampered,” Thompson said. “We are unable to really do as effective a job as possible.”
Scientists, health officials and the parents of two people who died after taking ephedra told the House panel Wednesday that the FDA should classify ephedra as a prescription drug, to be dispensed only when a doctor approves.
“Ephedrine products are not dietary supplements,” said Dr. Raymond Woosley, vice president for health sciences at the University of Arizona. “They are drugs, and they should be regulated as drugs.”
Manufacturers of ephedra insisted their products were safe.
“Ephedra supplements have been used by tens of millions of people in recent years,” said Robert Chinery Jr., president of Nutraquest Inc., formerly Cytodyne Technologies Inc.
Bechler’s parents, Ernie and Pat Bechler, and Kevin Riggins, whose 16-year-old son, Sean, died of a heart attack after taking ephedra, blamed the stimulant for the deaths.
“How many Steve Bechlers or Sean Rigginses have to die to prove that these are not safe?” Mrs. Bechler said, sitting behind a framed picture of her son in his Orioles uniform, her voice cracking. “We need to get this off the market. We need to help our children.”
Also at Wednesday’s hearing, three past or present Metabolife International officials took the Fifth Amendment and declined to testify. The San Diego-based company makes supplements that include ephedra.
The Justice Department is investigating whether the company lied about ephedra’s safety. The president of the company in 1998 told the FDA the firm never received any consumer complaints of serious side effects, but later turned over more than 14,000 records of calls from ephedra consumers with concerns about health-related issues.