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Sports Deaths Put National Spotlight on Ephedra Controversy

Football players and Baltimore pitcher who collapsed and died had taken the stimulant.

March 01, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

In 1996, the Food and Drug Administration warned against using products containing ephedra -- a message that failed to resonate with much of the public.

Then, in 2001, football players Rashidi Wheeler, Korey Stringer, Devaughn Darling and Curt Jones collapsed and died.

Ephedra has been under scrutiny ever since.

When Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler died Feb. 17, and the medical examiner who performed the autopsy said the 23-year-old's use of ephedra-containing Xenadrine RFA-1 was a "contributing factor," the political pressure against the substance appeared to reach a new level.

The FDA's announcement Friday that it has proposed putting warning labels on ephedra products -- saying some users have experienced heart attack, stroke, seizures and death -- was followed by word that House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) will lead congressional hearings exploring stronger government involvement, including a ban.

"These [sports] incidents have certainly affected the public's attention," said Michael McGuffin, president of the dietary-supplement advocacy group American Herbal Products Assn.

Coroners didn't say ephedra caused the deaths of Northwestern University safety Wheeler, a victim of exercise-induced asthma; Florida State linebacker Darling, who had a heart attack; or Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Stringer, who suffered heatstroke. But Wheeler and Darling had ephedra in their systems when they died, and Vikings attorneys have recently pressed the case that Stringer ingested a supplement before collapsing during an August workout.

Like Joshua Perper, the Broward County, Fla., medical examiner who said that Bechler's ephedra intake was a "significant element" in his death, Clark County (Nev.) Medical Examiner Ron Flud said Jones, a semipro player, died from "a preexisting heart condition that was exacerbated by his use of the drugs."

Ken Johnson, spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said, "I don't think there's any question what has happened to these athletes has raised interest about ephedra, but at the same time, the committee is deeply troubled by the growing number of deaths linked to ephedra."

Linda Will, Wheeler's mother, said the government was more able to effectively voice its concerns about the use of ephedra in weight loss, exercise and bodybuilding products because of the highly publicized athletes' deaths.

Northwestern attorneys, contending Wheeler influenced his death by ingesting two ephedra products, have named Cytodyne Technologies and Next Nutrition as codefendants in the wrongful-death suit filed by Wheeler's family. Cytodyne is the maker of Xenadrine RFA-1, the supplement in question in Bechler's death.

"I didn't know a thing about ephedra until my son died," Will said. "If ephedra was a factor in my son's death, it was not the key factor to his death. He died because Northwestern didn't handle his emergency care properly. That said, I don't think ephedra is a safe product, and I would hope my son is saving lives even in death."

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