Government dropped ball on supplements in '90s


January 25, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

President Bush drew widespread praise from every corner of the sports world for the high-minded stand he took against steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night.

Maybe now would be a good time for Bush and a lot of other politicians to take responsibility for the role they played in the proliferation of risky performance-enhancing supplements that flooded the sports market after the supplement industry was deregulated in 1994.

If somebody had taken a stand back then, when the bipartisan Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act passed through Congress and made it much easier for companies to pass "natural" products under the radar of the Food and Drug Administration, perhaps Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler never would have had access to the ephedra-based diet aid that doctors say contributed to his death last February.

Bush's comments were aimed more specifically at anabolic steroids, but the reach of performance-enhancing chemicals stretches much further than that. The widespread use of ephedra-based products by major league baseball players, other athletes and millions of weight-conscious consumers has led to more than 16,000 adverse incident reports to the FDA and has been linked to more than 150 deaths.

So, why did it take so long for the federal government to ban the sale of ephedra products (effective this March)? Because companies that produce the popular weight-loss aid and stimulant did a great job during the 1990s convincing federal and state politicians that the products were safe enough to be sold over the counter.

Unfortunately, they didn't do that with expensive, high-tech scientific studies that monitored the health of users over a long period of time. They did it the old-fashioned way - with campaign contributions.

OK, now for the real finger-pointing. The supplement industry greased politicians from both major political parties to encourage the 1994 deregulation bill, which was co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and Democrat Rep. Bill Richardson, who would go on to be Energy Secretary in the Bill Clinton administration.

More recently, the largest maker of ephedrine-based products, Metabolife, contributed millions to discourage efforts at the state and federal level to restrict ephedrine use, and that is only one of the companies that was involved in the intense lobbying effort to keep ephedrine largely unregulated.

The Washington Post reported in a 1999 article that Metabolife founder Michael Ellis and business partner Michael Blevins contributed $10,000 to Bush's gubernatorial campaign at about the same time that Texas health officials were watering down a proposal to restrict supplements containing ephedrine.

That contribution, however, pales next to the $80,000 paid by ephedrine manufacturers to Hatch's campaign and the $72,000 paid to Iowa Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin, another unabashed friend of the supplement industry.

The Post also cited a $100,000 soft money donation to recently recalled California Gov. Gray Davis, who vetoed a bill in 2000 that would have restricted the sale of ephedra in the nation's most populous state.

There is plenty of blame to go around. It wasn't until Bechler's death that politicians began to take real notice of the dangers of ephedrine, even though more than 100 had died before him.

Angels look solid

The Anaheim Angels took a big financial gamble when they guaranteed $70 million to superstar outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, since the contract could not be insured, but they came away with an excellent chance to establish themselves as the dominant team in the American League West.

Guerrero joins an offense that already includes big hitters Garret Anderson, Troy Glaus, Tim Salmon, Darin Erstad and newly acquired Jose Guillen. And the Angels don't face the pitching questions that still dog the Orioles after their impressive offseason shopping spree.

The Angels will go into spring training with something you don't see often in the majors anymore, a legitimate surplus in the starting rotation. They acquired quality free-agent starters Bartolo Colon (a 20-game winner in 2002) and Kelvim Escobar to go with Jarrod Washburn, Aaron Sele, Ramon Ortiz and 2002 World Series hero John Lackey. Now, there is the possibility that they'll have an extra starter on Opening Day.

If everyone stays healthy, the Angels could try to trade a starter - probably Ortiz or Washburn - to shave payroll during the latter part of spring training. They probably would prefer to move Sele, but he will be a tough sell after two injury-marred seasons.

Don't be surprised if rumors surface involving the Orioles this spring, but a club source said neither Ortiz nor Washburn is a high priority because both are fly-ball pitchers who might not be well-suited to Camden Yards.

A-Rod rumors resurface

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