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Deals Raise a Red Flag

Despite NCAA ban on ephedra-based products, 18 schools, including USC and UCLA, have sponsorship agreements with supplement maker.

March 11, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

The NCAA, like the International Olympic Committee and the NFL, has a ban on ephedra-based products such as Thermicore CRT. Yet the supplement's manufacturer, MET-Rx, sponsors more than a dozen college athletic programs and has advertising signs prominently posted inside several football and basketball facilities.

USC and UCLA are among 18 schools that have deals with MET-Rx, an arrangement that concerns the NCAA and angers at least one critic of college administrators.

"Schools are encouraging the use of supplements and they're not clearing up what is banned," said Linda Will, whose son, Rashidi Wheeler, died after a football conditioning drill on a Northwestern University practice field in 2001.

In defense of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Wheeler's family, Northwestern claims Wheeler's ingestion of ephedra-containing supplements before the workout contributed to his death.

Said Will: "It's hypocritical, and they're making a mockery of this situation.... It's all about dollars."

Carol Walters, a spokesperson for the parent company of MET-Rx, said distribution of Thermicore CRT fat-burning capsules and a muscle-building supplement containing androstenedione was stopped in August 2000 and the manufacturer no longer makes products using substances banned by the NCAA.

Thermicore CRT has been replaced by a new MET-Rx product, Extreme Diet FX, that includes an ephedra copycat that critics say also has side effects -- some known, others unknown because such supplements are unregulated.

Several independent Internet vendors still hawk Thermicore CRT on their sites, and the supplement has been sold off Southern California health store shelves in the last six months.

One Web site, supplementcritic.com, features a testimony from a Thermicore CRT user: "I lost 25 pounds in 40 days without lifting one weight."

Another Internet company, Powerhouse Supplements, sells Thermicore CRT over the Internet on the Yahoo! Shopping site. Asked if her company offered Thermicore CRT, a Powerhouse Supplements saleswoman said, "We'll have a new shipment of 16 bottles from our distributor [in three days]. Fill out your information on our Web site and we'll send it to you then."

Will Thomas, a general manager of Powerhouse Supplements' Cincinnati-based warehouse, identified his company's distributor as "the MET-Rx distribution center in Indianapolis."

Walters disputed that, saying her company's distribution centers are in Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada. Those centers have been emptied of Thermicore CRT inventory, she said.

"There are independent distributors, and what likely happened is that this group in Indianapolis purchased large quantities of [Thermicore CRT] in 2000, and they're selling it to the Internet companies," Walters said. "When we discontinue a product that means we don't ship it out anymore. It's not in our control at this point."

Thomas inspected a bottle of Thermicore CRT in his warehouse, noting its expiration date as December 2003. "Three years seems to be about the [expiration] rate on ephedra products," he said.

Thomas said MET-Rx's new Extreme Diet FX product has guarana extract, replacing ephedra. Guarana is also an ingredient in ephedra-free supplements Nophedra and Diet Fuel.

Dr. Stephen Barrett, an advocate for more FDA regulation of supplements, said guarana, extracted from plants found in the Amazon region, is a "strong caffeine" with side effects of cramping and increased heart rate.

Barrett said he doubts that guarana is dangerous, but he is not certain -- and that's the problem. "We have 25,000 products out there making 10,000 claims, and we're not holding these companies accountable to standards for over-the-counter drugs," he said. "The scrutiny over what is safe comes when people die, and that's not the way we should do things."

On Monday, the Journal of the American Medical Association's editor, Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, called for legislation to require FDA regulation of supplements claiming to have a biological function -- including weight loss, increased exercise endurance and enhanced sexual function.

An FDA spokesperson said she was "unaware" whether that organization had received complaints about the substitute ingredients in ephedra-free products. An American Medical Assn. spokesperson said, "Some of these things being put in there are not rigorously tested. That's the concern."

The FDA is already working to address some concerns, FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan said, including proposing warning labels.

Thermicore CRT could not be found on the shelves of several Los Angeles-area health stores last week; the manager at a GNC store in Northridge Fashion Center said he was not sure why. He said he thought he had seen a few bottles earlier in the week.

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