- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

Major League Baseball has banned the use of ephedra within the minor leagues, a swift step that could act as a precursor to an eventual ban in the majors.
MLB officials implemented the prohibition, to take effect immediately, 10 days after the death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler at the team's spring training complex in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Broward County, Fla., medical examiners have pointed to dietary supplements containing ephedra, an over the counter stimulant linked to a variety of serious health risks, as a key factor in Bechler's death.
Ephedra is not banned by the major leagues, as it is by the NFL, NCAA and Olympics, largely because of years of resistance from the MLB Players Association on civil liberties grounds. But players not on 40-man major league rosters are not covered by the union's collective bargaining agreement with MLB, hence baseball's ability to take unilateral action. Random drug testing for a variety of illegal drugs has been a fixture within minor league baseball, and ephedra will now be part of that testing.
"This is something I have absolutely no problem with, given the evidence I've seen," said Stan Brand, a District-based attorney and vice president of Minor League Baseball, the umbrella group for the 176 teams affiliated with MLB clubs.
A positive test for ephedra would subject a minor league player to a tiered system of punishment that includes drug counseling and, ultimately, an increasing series of suspensions and fines.
The minor league ban was first reported by the Baltimore Sun, and highlights a flurry of action on this issue since Bechler's death. MLB commissioner Bud Selig last week called for meetings with the union to discuss a ban, itself a significant declaration considering baseball's long-documented softness on drug control. Meanwhile, several lawmakers are planning to take action soon with legislation aimed at curbing or ceasing the availability of ephedra.
Herbal supplements, such as ones containing ephedra, are not subject to approval from the Food and Drug Administration, and FDA officials must prove a supplement is unsafe before it is pulled from the shelves.
"What Bud Selig has done with the minors is an incredibly positive and courageous step," said Rep. John Sweeney, New York Republican. "He stepped up and made a decision when presented with information."
A bill co-sponsored by Sweeney seeking to return the burden of proof of safety back to supplement manufacturers and eliminating over the counter ephedra sales will be introduced today or Monday. FDA administrators also have said they would rethink the current rules relating to ephedra, though the administration's pace may be slower than that on Capitol Hill.
Supplements containing ephedra, designed to boost metabolism and weight loss, have been linked to seizures, strokes, heart failure and an impairment in the body's ability to regulate heat. MLB Players Association officials, however, are waiting until final toxicology reports on Bechler are filed before making any significant moves. No ephedra-related talks between MLB officials and the union have been scheduled, despite Selig's public pleas for action, said MLB spokesman Rich Levin.
Owners last year unsuccessfully sought to get ephedra into MLB's new but limited drug testing program.
"You can't, it seems to me, draw any conclusions from this tragic event, at the very least until we see what the toxicology reports show," said union chief Donald Fehr. "We'll go from there, and if it's appropriate, obviously we'll take another hard look at the overall situation and see where it takes us."
Sweeney, a former labor lawyer, blasted Fehr's position.
"It's a real shame the safety and welfare of the union's own workers has to be negotiated," he said.
Ephedra manufacturers, including Cytodyne Technologies, makers of the Xenadrine RFA-1 taken by Bechler, say the substance is not to blame for Bechler's death. The manufacturers also say that the voluminous reports of adverse side effects are not scientific and do not prove causation of ephedra being harmful.
The attorney for Bechler's widow said earlier this week she intends to sue Cytodyne Technologies.

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