|Wednesday, March 5
Updated: March 6, 3:39 PM ET
Report: No proof that ephedra enhances performance
By Tom Farrey
Despite his determination that there is no scientific proof that ephedra enhances the performance of athletes, the author of a recent Bush Administration report said his analysis should not be construed as a recommendation that Major League Baseball continue to allow its players to use the controversial substance.
Paul Shekelle, director of the task force that was commissioned for the study last year, declined to join the roiling debate that since the death of Baltimore pitcher Steve Bechler has led commissioner Bud Selig and others to consider a ban on ephedra in baseball.
"We provided the evidence," Shekelle said. "Now the government, Major League Baseball or whoever can take the evidence and interpret it to fit their own situations."
The report by the Rand Corporation, released Friday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was pointed on the dangers of taking amphetamine-like products, which are used by many consumers to lose weight and by athletes specifically to boost energy levels. Health and Human Services now proposes to add warning labels to the bottles that would cite health risks, including death, of taking substances containing ephedra.
But in an observation that could be used to ward off any effort to ban ephedra in baseball, the Rand team also noted that "no studies have assessed the effect of herbal ephedra-containing dietary supplements on athletic performance." Typically, a driving consideration for a league in banning a substance is its potential warping effect on competition -- the integrity of the games.
"There's just a vast gulf between what our knowledge of these products and our use of these products," said Dr. Paul Shekelle, director of the Rand task force. "These products are used by millions of people, many of them athletes, but there's no research in the U.S. on this topic."
In scouring a large body of medical databases and industry journals, and consulting with technical experts, the only reliable studies that Rand could find that spoke to the question of athletic performance were on ephedrine, which is derived from the ephedra herb but not the same ingredient contained in the many products used by athletes. Bechler died of heatstroke at age 23 after taking Xenadrine RFA-1, which contains ephedra.
Selig recently banned the substance in minor-league baseball, where he does not need the approval of the players union to take action. Major league players last year opposed including ephedra among the substances banned by their labor agreement, which prohibits drugs of abuse and certain illegal steroids.
Fehr told the Associated Press on Tuesday that he was hopeful the U.S. government might make changes in the rules for using ephedra. He said the union will disseminate to its players the information on new warning labels that Tommy Thompson, the Health and Human Services secretary, has proposed placing on ephedra products.
Thompson has said that removal of the substances from store shelves is also under consideration. But any move in that direction would still leave baseball with the question of whether to add ephedra to its list of banned agents.
"We will talk to players about it and we will talk to clubs about it," Fehr said. "As a general rule, something is either safe enough to be sold, and adults have to make responsible decisions, or if it isn't the government ought to prohibit it."
Six of the eight studies that passed Rand's muster were conducted by Ira Jacobs and Douglas G. Bell at the Defense and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine, a research arm of the Canadian military. In an attempt to find substances for sluggish soldiers in times of crisis, the exercise physiologists began conducting tests in 1996 on small groups of fitness buffs in Toronto.
Alone, neither ephedrine nor caffeine had significant effects. But when combined, ephedrine and caffeine led to better exercise performance by increasing the time to exhaustion by as much as 30 percent. The authors suspect that together, the two substances stimulated the central nervous system, increasing arousal and making workouts seem less taxing.
"Caffeine in combination with ephedrine has resulted in the greatest improvement in performance in exercise intensity of any ergogenic aid we have studied," Jacobs said. "If you're exhausted after running 12 to 15 minutes, you may see improvement of six minutes" before hitting that wall.
Gains in other abilities were more modest. In a 30-second test on stationary bikes, test subjects given ephedrine and caffeine produced an increase in power only in the first 10 seconds, and the burst was 1.5 percent greater than if substances were not used.
"That's not highly significant for most people," said Jacobs, who does not condone its use by athletes. "But 1.5 percent over a 10-second race in a world-class competition is significant. So it's good that it is banned by sports regulatory bodies because it is effective and therefore would be cheating."
"Would it help you every time you pitch?" he said. "It's never been studied. It might be like coffee. The first time you have a cup, you get a real effective buzz. But three years later you're not going to receive the same buzz, even if you're drinking three cups a day."
Still, the popularity of these products is immense among athletes. About 2.8 million people have used ephedrine for athletic purposes alone in the last three years, according to one survey cited by Rand. The International Olympic Committee, the NFL and NCAA already ban substances related to ephedra.
"Where there's smoke, there's fire," said Jacobs, a researcher for the Canadian military. "All these (athletes) wouldn't be using it if they didn't perceive that the benefits were real, especially when you consider the potential health risks."
One result of the Rand report that is already taking effect is a crackdown by the Food and Drug Administration on the claims made by manufacturers of ephedra products. The FDA has sent out warning letters to 26 firms, accusing them of false advertising for such acts as telling consumers they can "build muscle fast" by using such products.
Those companies have 15 days to adjust or substantiate their advertising claims.
Cytodyne Technologies, the New Jersey company that manufacturers Xenadrine RFA-1, is not one of the companies targeted by the FDA for false advertising. But after a medical examiner linked Bechler's death to ephedra, David Meiselman, an attorney representing Bechler's widow, Kiley, said he plans to file the suit against Cytodyne.
On its Web site, Cytodyne has stopped listing Xenadrine RFA-1 as one of the company's products. Almost all references to the product have been removed as well, replaced by greater promotion of the company's ephedra-free equivalent, Xenadrine-EFX. However, it is unclear whether Cytodyne is discontinuing sales of RFA-1 or merely de-emphasizing the product, as a Cytodyne phone salesman was still taking orders for RFA-1 as of Wednesday afternoon.
Asked by ESPN.com about the changes on the Web site, company spokesman Bryan Glazer issued the statement, "Cytodyne Technologies has no comment."
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.