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Youths' Use of Supplements Decried

Health: Experts say 1 million students may have taken muscle-building and weight-loss products.

January 15, 2002|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — With experts testifying that as many as 1 million high school students have consumed supplements aimed at helping them lose weight or perform better on the playing field, state lawmakers vowed Monday to take steps to prohibit minors from having access to those substances.

The California Interscholastic Federation, which oversees high school sports, has no policy on the use of creatine and steroid precursors such as androstenedione, touted as muscle-building products. It also does not address herbal ephedrine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has received reports of 80 people who have died since the mid-1990s after using products that contained ephedra. Ephedrine is used in some weight-loss and energy-boosting dietary supplements.

"It's a dream team market," state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) said of the youth market for such products. "People [in high school] want to bulk up, and there are people who want to slim down, and there's no one else left."

The federal government has limited authority to regulate the products, known as dietary supplements. Though some manufacturers have label warnings that their products are not for sale to minors, Texas is the only state that has banned the sale of herbal ephedrine to minors.

In California, state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who presided over Monday's hearing, is pushing legislation, SB 397, to prohibit sales to minors, but it stalled in the Assembly last year.

"At the very least, we have to prohibit the sale of ephedra [to minors]," said Speier, who hopes to revive her measure this year. "Warning labels should be clear and conspicuous. And we've got to embark on a huge education program."

In testimony Monday, Dr. Christine Haller of the UC San Francisco medical school cited surveys showing that 1 million people between the ages of 12 and 17 have used such products, and that 57% of college athletes who use supplements report starting when they were in high school.

Haller said student athletes rarely follow dose limits suggested on the labels, believing that if "some is good, then more must be better."

The Olympics, NCAA and National Football League prohibit the use of many such products, including herbal ephedrine, also known as ephedra and ma huang, and steroid precursors such as androstenedione, or andro, made famous when baseball slugger Mark McGwire acknowledged using it in 1998 when he hit 70 home runs.

Greg Davis, a 19-year-old community college student from Pleasant Hill, testified that when he was a high school quarterback in Contra Costa County, he suffered seizures twice while taking an array of supplements. The second seizure occurred as he was driving; he drove off the road and nearly plunged into a creek.

"I really wanted to take my performance to the next level," Davis said, explaining why he began taking creatine, andro and herbal ephedrine products.

He said his coaches and parents never recommended that he take such supplements. But he said that other high school athletes come up with the suggestions of the "magic pills," and that the products are readily available at stores and on the Internet.

Roger Blake of the California Interscholastic Federation said the high school sports organization last year produced a fact sheet for coaches detailing the potential ill effects of herbal ephedrine. Among those listed were strokes, heart attacks and seizures.

"The performance-enhancement drug epidemic is new--and it is an epidemic," Blake said.

Blake said high school coaches, who need virtually no formal training, often tell students that they need to "get bigger, stronger, faster."

Blake said a program begun in the mid-1990s to train coaches on an array of issues, including health and safety, faces budget cutbacks. Gov. Gray Davis has proposed cutting $1 million from the coach training program as part of his effort to deal with a $12-billion state budget deficit.

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