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January 2, 2004

Under The Knife

The Ephedra Ban

by Will Carroll

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Earlier this week, the Federal government banned products containing ephedra, the dietary supplement which was linked to the death of former-Orioles' pitcher Steve Bechler last spring. This ban gives athletes, trainers, and anyone else currently using products containing ephedra 60 days to clear out their inventory and rebuild around products containing other thermogenic agents.

And yet, while the ban is intended to keep people from using ephedra, products containing the dietary supplement are already flying off the shelves in some areas. The reason? Because despite its pitfalls, products containing ephedra are still very effective at helping individuals lose weight.

That said, ephedra is not the only thermogenic agent. The pill that Bechler took, Xenadrine RFA, was removed from the market voluntarily by its manufacturer and replaced with a similar product that did not contain ephedra. In fact, on the Xenadrine webpage, the manufacturer states that the new product is more effective without ephedra. What, then is powering this 'more effective' thermogenic? According to the manufacturer:

Tyroplex™ (proprietary blend of l-tyrosine and acetyl-l-tyrosine), Green Tea Extract (standardized for epigallocatechin gallate, caffeine, and polyphenols), Seropro™ (proprietary cocoa extract standardized for PEA (phenylethylamine), tyramine and theobromine), Yerba Mate (standardized for caffeine and methylxanthines), di-Methionine, Ginger Root (standardized for gingerols), Isotherm™ (proprietary blend of 3,3',4',5-7 pentahydroxyflavone and 3,3',4',7-tetrahydroxy-flavone), Bitter Orange (standardized for synephrine, n-methyltyramine, hordenine, octopamine, and tyramine), DMAE (2-dimethylaminoethanol), Grape Seed Extract (standardized for catechins).
While the manufacturer quotes from a National Institute of Health study when discussing its products, I could find no in-depth study of the active ingredients in the new formula Xenadrine. I have no doubt, however, that while we may not see any ephedra in the lockers or GNCs next spring, we'll likely be able to find a bit more Green Tea Extract and NoDoz than makes me comfortable.

What the government has done is take the easy way out, a step that may cause more problems than it solves. While Steve Bechler's father may rest better knowing that no one else will die from ephedra abuse, we have done nothing substantive to keep others from suffering heat-related deaths. If the next pitcher who shows up for camp overweight thinks taking a non-ephedra thermogenic is safer because it's not on a banned substances list, I hope the tide of circumstances that caused Bechler's death do not occur again.

The answer is not prohibition. Instead, it is education. Every one of the points I made last February in this article holds true today. If banning ephedra is necessary, we should go ahead and ban all thermogenic agents. But if we're not going to do that, a lot more good could be done with education, full physicals by independent physicians, and proper acclimatization. As well, players should take responsibility for their own bodies, coming to camp in shape, maintaining their health, and knowing the rules for what they choose to ingest.

For a more eloquent defense, I recommend reading this excellent Reason essay by Jacob Sullum. His breakdown of the risk factors of other drugs and the mention of 'the constellation' of factors that led to Bechler's death is the best story I've seen on the subject.

--

Now for some notes...

  • Sources with the Yankees have expressed some concerns about the ability of Jason Giambi to stand up to an increased workload at first base next season. With the trade of Nick Johnson and the acquisition of Kenny Lofton, it has been assumed that Giambi would work more from first base than DH. While Giambi's offseason knee surgery cleared up some of the damage in and around his patellar tendon, recent comparables have had significant problems. The most direct comparison is Mark McGwire, who lost power and eventually retired due to similar problems. Giambi's problem is not considered as serious, but McGwire's situation stands as a worst-case scenario.

    More comparable on a case-basis is that of J.D. Drew. Drew, as you know, was unable to play more than 100 games and had significant problems in the field. Giambi's defensive position will reduce some of the stress, but the Yankees will need to find a backup like Tony Clark, Eric Karros or even Bernie Williams in order to keep Giambi's bat in the lineup for better than 120 games.

  • The Orioles have made the biggest splashes in the free agent market this offseason, signing Miguel Tejada and putting the best public offer down on Vladimir Guerrero. One move that surprised many was the signing of Javy Lopez over the available Ivan Rodriguez. The signing of Rodriguez was "done" according to MLB sources at the Winter Meetings, but something changed the Orioles' mind. This something was not injury, but money. While the O's could not have insured Rodriguez's back for even one year, let alone three, it was the demand for a fourth guaranteed year that ended up scuttling the deal, or rather, gave Lopez's agents the ability to underbid.

    On the injury-risk scale, I actually prefer Rodriguez. Much has been made of his injury woes from the 2000 season on, but most were traumatic results of catching rather than signs of overuse or breakdown. The back problem he endured during the 2002 season served as a wakeup call, giving Pudge a real motivation to commit to stretching and a trunk strengthening program.

  • The Rangers have one of the top medical staffs in baseball, led by John Conway and Jamey Reed, but John Hart's signings always seem to task that staff. The recent acquisition of Brian Jordan is no different. Jordan may have as many as three positive opinions on his surgically repaired knee, but these opinions only say that he's able to play, not that he will be able to play without pain or over a long period of time. Another patellar tendon problem is almost inevitable, and Jordan's lack of knee cartilage certainly won't help. One positive for the Rangers is their depth at the position. Kevin Mench, who still is not 100% with his problematic wrist, will likely be alongside of Jordan--as will one of my favorite young players, Laynce Nix, with Ramon Nivar and possibly Mark Teixeira available to man the outfield if the others can't. Buck Showalter has some decent options to mix-and-match with, so his ability to rest his players and keep them healthy will be perhaps the most important part of his job.

  • After missing the end of the season with a controversial injury, the Rangers are not likely to miss Juan Gonzalez. Sources close to Gonzalez say that he is working out hard and is motivated to prove that he can be among the elite hitters in the game again. If so, he may be working out with the right guy. Apparently, Ruben Sierra has been showing Gonzalez what he went through a few years back when he came back from being out of baseball. These same sources say Gonzalez is noticeably smaller, but feels equally as strong.

I'll be back as events warrant, but remember you can catch me every Saturday on Baseball Prospectus Radio. We'll be talking with our man in the Dominican, Carlos Lugo, this Saturday, so be sure to check it out.

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