Deals Raise a Red Flag

Times Staff Writer

The NCAA, like the International Olympic Committee and the NFL, has a ban on ephedra-based products such as Thermicore CRT. Yet the supplement's manufacturer, MET-Rx, sponsors more than a dozen college athletic programs and has advertising signs prominently posted inside several football and basketball facilities.

USC and UCLA are among 18 schools that have deals with MET-Rx, an arrangement that concerns the NCAA and angers at least one critic of college administrators.

"Schools are encouraging the use of supplements and they're not clearing up what is banned," said Linda Will, whose son, Rashidi Wheeler, died after a football conditioning drill on a Northwestern University practice field in 2001.

In defense of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Wheeler's family, Northwestern claims Wheeler's ingestion of ephedra-containing supplements before the workout contributed to his death.

Said Will: "It's hypocritical, and they're making a mockery of this situation.... It's all about dollars."

Carol Walters, a spokesperson for the parent company of MET-Rx, said distribution of Thermicore CRT fat-burning capsules and a muscle-building supplement containing androstenedione was stopped in August 2000 and the manufacturer no longer makes products using substances banned by the NCAA.

Thermicore CRT has been replaced by a new MET-Rx product, Extreme Diet FX, that includes an ephedra copycat that critics say also has side effects -- some known, others unknown because such supplements are unregulated.

Several independent Internet vendors still hawk Thermicore CRT on their sites, and the supplement has been sold off Southern California health store shelves in the last six months.

One Web site, supplementcritic.com, features a testimony from a Thermicore CRT user: "I lost 25 pounds in 40 days without lifting one weight."

Another Internet company, Powerhouse Supplements, sells Thermicore CRT over the Internet on the Yahoo! Shopping site. Asked if her company offered Thermicore CRT, a Powerhouse Supplements saleswoman said, "We'll have a new shipment of 16 bottles from our distributor [in three days]. Fill out your information on our Web site and we'll send it to you then."

Will Thomas, a general manager of Powerhouse Supplements' Cincinnati-based warehouse, identified his company's distributor as "the MET-Rx distribution center in Indianapolis."

Walters disputed that, saying her company's distribution centers are in Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada. Those centers have been emptied of Thermicore CRT inventory, she said.

"There are independent distributors, and what likely happened is that this group in Indianapolis purchased large quantities of [Thermicore CRT] in 2000, and they're selling it to the Internet companies," Walters said. "When we discontinue a product that means we don't ship it out anymore. It's not in our control at this point."

Thomas inspected a bottle of Thermicore CRT in his warehouse, noting its expiration date as December 2003. "Three years seems to be about the [expiration] rate on ephedra products," he said.

Thomas said MET-Rx's new Extreme Diet FX product has guarana extract, replacing ephedra. Guarana is also an ingredient in ephedra-free supplements Nophedra and Diet Fuel.

Dr. Stephen Barrett, an advocate for more FDA regulation of supplements, said guarana, extracted from plants found in the Amazon region, is a "strong caffeine" with side effects of cramping and increased heart rate.

Barrett said he doubts that guarana is dangerous, but he is not certain -- and that's the problem. "We have 25,000 products out there making 10,000 claims, and we're not holding these companies accountable to standards for over-the-counter drugs," he said. "The scrutiny over what is safe comes when people die, and that's not the way we should do things."

On Monday, the Journal of the American Medical Association's editor, Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, called for legislation to require FDA regulation of supplements claiming to have a biological function -- including weight loss, increased exercise endurance and enhanced sexual function.

An FDA spokesperson said she was "unaware" whether that organization had received complaints about the substitute ingredients in ephedra-free products. An American Medical Assn. spokesperson said, "Some of these things being put in there are not rigorously tested. That's the concern."

The FDA is already working to address some concerns, FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan said, including proposing warning labels.

Thermicore CRT could not be found on the shelves of several Los Angeles-area health stores last week; the manager at a GNC store in Northridge Fashion Center said he was not sure why. He said he thought he had seen a few bottles earlier in the week.

The GNC at Westside Pavilion was sold out of Thermicore CRT, but a clerk said the store expected a new shipment of three or four bottles within days. The store stocks the supplement in small amounts, the clerk said. GNC, with more than 5,000 stores, and MET-Rx are both owned by the Netherlands-based Royal Numico.

Six Pacific 10 Conference schools, San Diego State and football power Miami are among schools with MET-Rx marketing deals, which are not under NCAA control. "It's an institutional issue," said Mary Wilfert, the NCAA's assistant director of education outreach.

In bylaws written to "exclude those advertisements that do not appear to be in the best interests of higher education" from its championship events' broadcasts and game programs, the NCAA "expressly prohibits" advertising of alcoholic beverages (with exceptions for low-alcohol products), cigarettes and tobacco companies, professional sports teams and organizations promoting gambling.

Concerns about athletes using ephedra and possibly suffering catastrophic health effects resurfaced last month after the death of Baltimore Oriole pitcher Steve Bechler and the filing of legal documents claiming Minnesota Viking tackle Korey Stringer ingested a supplement containing ephedra before he died during training camp in 2001.

Bechler's wife has hired an attorney who said he will sue Cytodyne Technologies, manufacturer of Xenadrine RFA-1.

The availability of Thermicore CRT is troubling to those who say university athletic programs are turning a blind eye to the danger of such products while cashing in on partnerships with supplement companies such as MET-Rx.

"Marketing people have no idea what these products do," said Marc Isenberg, a college sports watchdog who operates the Web site A-Game.com. "What they're focused on instead is this charge to make more money. In this economy and the way athletic budgets are escalating, they have a big horse to feed."

Spokesmen from USC and UCLA declined to provide details of their schools' sponsorship deals with MET-Rx.

"We don't provide ephedra products to our students, we do a very good job of educating our kids about what is right and wrong to take, and we [drug] test them," USC's Tim Tessalone said.

At UCLA, MET-Rx advertising is on a rotating banner at the scorer's table in Pauley Pavilion, an arrangement that conference sources estimated generates more than $30,000 per season. MET-Rx also sponsors UCLA's athlete-of-the-week award.

UCLA's Marc Dellins said the deal is no more sinister than "one with a food product made by a company that also sells cigarettes."

Lee Rosenthal, general sales manager of Arizona State's Sun Devil Sports Network, said ASU's partnership with MET-Rx is "one of our top 20" and worth "six figures."

MET-Rx advertises inside Sun Devil Stadium, Wells Fargo Arena, on game broadcasts and provides fans game-day samples of products such as health bars and shakes. Rosenthal said the average cost for placing an advertising sign in the football stadium is $65,000; $40,000 for the arena.

"Our coaches don't do commercials for them, but MET-Rx can identify itself as a proud sponsor of ASU athletics," Rosenthal said.

The University of Arizona also has MET-Rx advertising in its football stadium and basketball arena. Scott MacKenzie, assistant athletic director for marketing and corporate sales, said his school's athletes use several MET-Rx products not containing ephedra.

"It's a great product, and one our strength and conditioning coach, Brad Arnett, wants," MacKenzie said. "We're proud to be affiliated with [MET-Rx]."

Oregon State and Stanford also have deals with MET-Rx and Miami football Coach Larry Coker runs a youth football camp sponsored by the company. A Miami official said the school's contract with MET-Rx is worth more than $100,000 annually.

Pac-10 officials have not conferred with MET-Rx representatives, but Pac-10 spokesman Jim Muldoon said the issue may be discussed when the Pac-10 council and presidents meet May 31 and June 1 in Seattle.

State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) announced plans last week for a bill to ban the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedra in the state. Last year, Speier sponsored a law endorsed by the Consumers Union that banned the sale of ephedra products to minors in California.

Walters said Rexall Sundown, which purchased MET-Rx Inc. in 2000, opted to discontinue the distribution of Thermicore CRT because of "brand positioning, and we wanted a more protein-based line. It was totally a marketing decision."

Wilfert said the NCAA subscribes to and instructs member institutions to rely on a service of the Resource Exchange Center at the National Center for Drug-Free Sport, which details health supplement ingredients and classifies others, such as creatine and free-formed or branch-chain amino acids, that NCAA legislation has discouraged but not banned.

"We banned ephedra because it may provide an unfair advantage for athletes and it may provide an unsafe health risk," Wilfert said. "... Certainly, we are concerned people will use products they think are legal just because they can go into a health store and get them over the counter."

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Times staff writer Dan Loumena contributed to this report.

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