Sales spark some

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 7:09 AM ET

Exercise and diet are not enough for today's young athlete. An increasing number of teens are turning to sports supplements and stimulants -- and occasionally steroids -- to build their bodies. But at what cost? Sun writer Randy Sportak examines this trend in a special six-part series.

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School's out and classes are done for the day. What does your teen do now?

Imagine the typical after-school routine.

A trip to the convenience store for a refreshment, a visit to the mall with friends and a stopover at the grocery store to pick up milk needed for the next day's breakfast.

Nothing to worry about, right?

Well, he could have grabbed a highly caffeinated drink -- such as Red Bull -- at his first stop.

Then he may have picked up a bottle of the stimulant ephedra from the health food store in the shopping centre.

And, finally, he could have bought some creatine, a controversial muscle-builder, readily available in grocery stores.

Performance-enhancing products are all around them and easy to obtain. And teens are buying them: Local sports supplement stores report at least 10% of their business comes from under-18 consumers.

"It would be a safer way to go without all the availability for kids," says registered dietician Kelly Ann Erdman, who works with young Olympic-level athletes at the National Sports Centre and the U of C.

In Canada, it's not illegal to sell kids of any age creatine, ephedra, protein powders and caffeine.

But is it ethical?

It would be impossible to stop selling caffeinated products, so until there's a crackdown on coffee, pop and chocolate, caffeine pills and caffeine-rich beverages will remain on the market.

Even those opposed to teens using protein powders admit their opposition stems from fears kids will use it as a meal substitute.

The product itself, they say, is virtually harmless.

There's considerably more concern raised about the sales of creatine and ephedra to teenagers.

"Any (ephedra-based) stimulant product should be restricted to those under age," Erdman says.

"Mainly, just because of their (lack of) maturity. When they're older, they can make those decisions."

The U.S. government has already made that decision for its citizens, banning sales of ephedra in April after the Food and Drug Administration linked it to heart attack, stroke and more 150 deaths.

The International Olympic Committee has declared ephedra a banned substance, as has the National Football League.

The Canadian government has been taking baby steps to curb its use.

In January 2002, Health Canada recalled products containing more than an 8-mg dose of ephedra.

Moreover, products that combined ephedra with another stimulant (usually caffeine) also were pulled from shelves.

Plus, ephedra-based products featuring claims of appetite suppression, weight loss, metabolic enhancement, increased exercise tolerance, body-building effects, euphoria, increased energy, wakefulness or other stimulated effects were recalled.

But ephedra products are still out there.

And Canadian kids can buy it, often with no questions asked (see story below).

"I go to the big (trade) shows and have kids ask me about using ephedra," says Jim McMahon, founder and president of Vancouver-based PVL Nutrients, one of Canada's top sports-supplement manufacturers.

"I ask them, 'Where did you hear about that stuff?' and they say they read about it a magazine or from guys at the gym.

"I've told kids, 'What do you need an upper for? Get your head on straight.' "

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Jim McMahon would be expected to oppose banning creatine sales to minors. After all, a ban would hit him in the pocketbook, as he estimates the youth market represents 30% of sales of PVL Nutrients' muscle-building products.

Yet ask him about banning the sale of creatine to minors ....

"I, personally, would be fine with that," he says, noting he recently dissuaded a friend from allowing his 15-year-old son to use it.

"I'm sure people are thinking, 'McMahon's off his rocker,' but I look at it as a parent, too."

To date, creatine has been shown to be a safe product when used properly, although there are no conclusive long-term studies on its use by teenagers and its effect, if any, on their growth.

Creatine, allowed for sale as a food product, has been deemed safe for use of up to

five grams per day by Health Canada.

The agency cautions people with prior health problems to avoid it and warns consumers to avoid taking more than

five grams daily. Creatine producers, however, suggest a 'loading period' when users ingest four to five times that amount.

Imy Kassam, owner of local sports supplement store Newfound Health, fears teens will use too much creatine in their workouts. That's one reason Kassam claims he won't sell creatine to kids.

"There's no way I'd sell it to them and I'd explain to them why," he said.

"In small doses, they would be fine but with the way kids abuse things ..."


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