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NFL Sacks Ephedra

League bans popular diet supplement that critics call dangerous

FRIDAY, Sept. 28, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The National Football League has added the dietary supplement ephedrine to its roster of banned substances, a list that includes illegal drugs and steroids.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced the new policy yesterday in a letter to the league's 31 teams, calling for an immediate ban on the use of ephedrine and related "high-risk stimulants."

"These substances present significant health issues for athletes and others engaged in strenuous physical activity," the league says.

A spokesman for the NFL, who did not want to be identified, says officials are now huddling over testing procedures and potential penalties for violating the ban. Breaches of the NFL's prohibited substance rules can result in fines and suspensions, the spokesman says.

Ephedrine is the active ingredient in ephedra, an herbal stimulant purported to help athletic performance and promote weight loss. Ephedra, which goes by a string of street names including Ma Huang, Bishop's Tea and Chi Powder, relaxes airways in the lungs, and is widely available in unregulated, nonprescription products from supplement stores and mail order houses.

Consumer watchdog Public Citizen has called ephedra "the most lethal" dietary supplement and has urged the Food and Drug Administration to ban it. The group says the compound was implicated in almost 1,400 adverse-reaction reports between 1993 and 2000, including 81 deaths. Thirty-two involved heart attacks, 91 were high blood pressure, 62 were for abnormal heartbeats, and 69 were strokes. The chemical can also cause a wide range of other symptoms, including sleep disruption, hallucinations and "skin eruptions," according to the group.

Public Citizen says poison control figures show a sharp increase in the number of ephedra reactions reported each year, from 211 in 1997 to 407 in 1999.

Carl Francis, a spokesman for the NFL Players Association, says his members fully back the policy.

"We were very involved in the decision" to put ephedra on the list of banned substances, Francis says. He adds that the association knows of "maybe a few" players who have used the products, but that he doesn't have complete figures.

Under the new policy, players may not take or distribute ephedra-containing substances "unless prescribed for medical use by a team physician." (Since ephedra is available over-the-counter, a script isn't needed to purchase it.) Nor are players or teams permitted to endorse products that contain ephedra and other banned substances.

The policy also forbids teams or team employees from distributing ephedra products to players, or from possessing them on club property.

The FDA has tried unsuccessfully in the past to regulate ephedra. In June 1997, for example, the agency proposed a rule that would have limited the amount of the substance that could be added to dietary supplements to 8 milligrams. It would also have put warning labels on the products cautioning against taking them for more than a week, and advising consumers not to combine them with other stimulants.

But the General Accounting Office, reviewing the matter at the request of Congress, told the FDA it needed more evidence that the herbal therapy was truly dangerous.

Joseph Betz, vice president for scientific and technical affairs at the American Herbal Products Association, which represents ephedra makers, says his group supports the NFL's decision. "We don't want children who use pro athletes as role models to use [ephedra-containing] materials irresponsibly," says Betz, who adds that the association discourages people under 18 from taking these substances.

However, Betz insists that ephedra is "safe if used as directed," and that the athletic associations, like the NFL or the International Olympic Committee, that prohibit its use are doing so not necessarily because of its health risks but for its performance-enhancing effects.

Wes Siegner, an attorney for the Ephedra Education Council, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group, says the companies he represents aren't opposed to bans on their products for being stimulants.

"If the leagues want to ban them because they're concerned about enhancing performance, that's fine. But if they want to do it out of concern over safety, we can't prevent them from that doing; it's just not connected to science," he says.

What To Do

For more on the ban, check out, the league's official Web site.

To learn about the pros and cons of getting nutrients through supplements, visit the American Dietetic Association.

The Ephedra Education Council has more on the industry's views on the substance, as does the American Herbal Products Association.

SOURCES: Interviews with Carl Francis, director of communications, National Football League Players Association, Washington, D.C.; Joseph Betz, Ph.D., vice president for scientific and technical affairs, American Herbal Products Association, Silver Spring, Md.; Wes Siegner, legal counsel, Ephedra Education Council, Washington, D.C.; Public Citizen, National Football League press releases
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