The findings of a Tribune investigation into widespread use of unregulated and potentially hazardous dietary supplements by East Valley high school athletes, reported in today's special section, “The Supplement Gamble,” raises troubling questions, to say the least.
Although it would be premature to call for sweeping regulation of supplements, the lack of government oversight, public awareness and industry reporting requirements, despite increasing numbers of reported cases of unhealthy and even fatal side effects, warrants close scrutiny with an eye toward protecting our youth.
Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that one of the supplements that is growing quickly in popularity, ephedra, while touted by its makers for weight loss and boosting energy, has been associated with 123 deaths by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. While professional, college and Olympic athletes are prohibited from taking ephedra, neither the Arizona Interscholastic Association nor the National Federation of State High School Associations has banned it. Indeed, the organizations don't even have a list of banned substances.
Substances are banned at the upper echelons of the athletic world primarily to make sure no competitor has an unfair advantage, and we would expect that to be a concern at the high school level as well. But even more important among youths who have not yet reached adulthood are the health implications of supplement use, overuse and misuse.
Parents, coaches, school athletic organizations and government owe youngsters the concern and vigilance required to ferret out the hazards of supplement use and then take appropriate action to minimize or eliminate those hazards.
Clearly, based on what the Tribune's reporting team has uncovered, much work needs to be done. Although coaches, to their credit, seemed most concerned about rampant supplement use, we cannot expect them to curb this problem without support from other quarters. Parents need to make it their business to find out what's making the rounds in their children's peer groups and then tap reliable sources of information about potential ill effects. Coaches should make it their business to have the best information available on various supplements — and that probably won't come from dealers' sales pitches.
A solid foundation for parental and coaching advice would be the view that a nutritious, balanced diet and plenty of sleep are proven building blocks of athletic performance. But that alone won't keep every kid from trying products that promise enhanced strength and performance. Products that have proved potentially dangerous ought to be regulated and, if warranted, banned.
One clear regulatory gap is the lack of a reporting requirement by manufacturers of adverse effects. Congress should close that gap immediately so that the FDA can begin logging such cases and issuing regulatory recommendations based on solid data.
Although some would prefer throwing a regulatory net over the entire supplement industry, that would be an unwarranted, expensive and intrusive expansion of government. What is needed is more oversight to find and record adverse effects, more reliable information on safe use of the various products available, and targeted regulation and even banning of substances that have been proven hazardous.
Parents, educators and elected officials should expect nothing less. It is, after all, the welfare of our children that we're talking about here.