Don't ban ephedra


CHICAGO - Thousands of people die every year from overdoses of drugs such as heroin and cocaine, which is an intolerable state of affairs. So here's an idea: Let's outlaw heroin and cocaine.

Whoops. We already did that, didn't we? And people kept snorting, smoking or injecting them anyway, despite the risks.

Prohibiting a substance is not a cure-all. That's worth remembering when politicians demand that the federal government and Major League Baseball ban ephedra, the herbal stimulant blamed for the death of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler.

A horde of federal lawmakers leaped to denounce baseball for letting players decide for themselves whether to use ephedra - a policy Republican Rep. John E. Sweeney of New York called "irresponsible and negligent." A ban on ephedra "is something we definitely are considering," said Mark McClellan, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

The 23-year-old pitcher was overweight and had little food in his system as he sweated through drills on an 81-degree day - factors that may have contributed to his death from heatstroke. The label on the stuff Mr. Bechler reportedly was taking has a warning against use by anyone who has high blood pressure or liver problems, as he did.

It's not as though there has been an epidemic of ephedra-related fatalities in baseball. Lots of players have used it. One former teammate of Mr. Bechler's said, "Let's be real. Who doesn't take it?" People expected to perform at their physical peak in a lucrative but mercilessly competitive environment are bound to look for a boost on days when they don't feel their best. For many athletes, ephedra is the best option. Yet this is the first baseball death blamed on it.

Supporters of a ban note that the National Football League, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the International Olympic Committee all forbid its use. But the NFL also prohibits steroids, which somehow hasn't stopped players from getting more gigantic every year. And it's hard to see why baseball should ban something unless it confers a big competitive advantage and seriously endangers the health of athletes, neither of which is necessarily the case with ephedra.

It's a supplement used by some 12 million people a year, generating sales of nearly $15 billion in 1999, which suggests that a lot of Americans find it useful. True, it does occasionally produce adverse reactions and even death, but so do lots of over-the-counter remedies, including aspirin.

When taken in combination with caffeine, it also has proven value as a weight-loss aid.

Studies suggest that ephedra poses far greater dangers than most health supplements. But that's not necessarily an argument for banning it. It's a better argument for requiring conspicuous warnings to let people know they may be putting themselves at some risk when they take the stuff, as the FDA proposed last week.

The government, or baseball, may be able to get rid of ephedra. What they can't get rid of is the desire many Americans have to be thinner or more energetic. Go after one substance, and they'll inevitably find others, legal or illegal, which may not be safer. And that's especially true of professional athletes, whose livelihoods are at stake.

So here's a different solution: Make sure people have the information they need about ephedra, and let them decide for themselves whether the benefits are worth the risks. Whose life is it, anyway?

Steve Chapman is a columnist for The Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.

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