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A Tragic Lesson In Double Standards - Again

06/21/07

Opinion By Nurse Mark

Dying For Athletic Performance

You may recall reading recently of a New York teen who died of an apparent overdose of what are being called "sports creams" or "muscle creams." The news report seems to be rather careful to not "name names" regarding the product used, saying only that the product contained the chemical methyl salicylate and citing a couple of examples of patented medicines that contain the ingredient.

There are a few things that disturb me about this whole affair.

First, a bright and wonderful young life has ended. That is a tragedy of terrible proportions.

Next, this life ended as a result of the overuse (or misuse) of a drug. Certainly this young lady must have been able to read the warnings regarding correct and safe use of the products that she was applying to her body. But even though there are "warnings" and "cautions", the drug companies go to great lengths in their advertising campaigns to promote the idea that these preparations are benign, and safe for virtually unlimited use. Certainly this girl's mother fell for the advertising hype as she says "I did not think an over-the-counter product could be unsafe." I would guess that the other important people in this young woman's brief life who might have intervened, her athletic coaches, shared similar beliefs.

Nothing could be further from the truth - Methyl Salicylate can be a highly toxic substance if misused.

But salicylates also have a long and safe history of use in traditional medicines: Oil of Wintergreen, White Willow, Sweet Birch, Eastern Teaberry, and others have long been used to provide relief of pain and inflammation by traditional healers.

There is a difference though: the forms of salicylates found in the new, patented products are synthesized and are in extremely high concentrations. High enough to be easily fatal when more than the recommended amounts are used. The more traditional forms and uses of salicylates, in teas brewed from plants, or simply by chewing on twigs or mashing plants to rub on an aching body part are far less likely to ever result in overdose.

What else disturbs me about all this?

It seems to me that the reporting of this tragedy is carefully avoiding any call for more stringent safety warnings or for banning of these products or for any restrictions at all. It seems that patent medicine giants like Johnson & Johnson, Chattem, and others will "dodge the bullet" on this one.

Would this be the case if this were a non-patented, natural product not from one of the "Big Boys?"

Somehow I think not! I'm betting that if this tragic death had occurred as a result of the misuse of a traditional remedy we would have heard instant and strident calls for the substance to be banned outright in order to "protect our children" from "unproven and unscientific" (read: "unpatented") remedies.

Is this a ridiculous or paranoid thought? Some might say, but I can only point to the FDA's own "proud" history of banning natural substances under equally flimsy or hyped-up pretext while safeguarding the interests of Big Pharma by protecting drugs known to be deadly. Ephedra? A natural substance, implicated in the deaths of a handful of people who misused it. Banned. Vioxx? A wildly profitable patented medicine, protected until the dead bodies were piled too high to ignore. Banned? Nope, "voluntarily withdrawn." Skin Answer, a skin cream that users credited with success in treating some skin cancers? Banned. Lane Labs, the small company who produced it? Ruined by the heavy-handed actions of the FDA. Number of complaints about Skin Answer? One - made by the FDA itself. Avandia, the new and profitable diabetes drug that has been killing people? Still being protected by the FDA who are advising people to not stop taking the drug.

Can you see the double standard at work here? Or is it just me...

To the parents of Arielle Newman I wish to extend my most heartfelt sympathies for their loss. To all the other young athletes, (and those not so young too) I ask you to remember this tragedy when you reach for that "harmless" patented OTC medication. Folks, I am a runner too - and I let my body tell me when to stop. If it hurts, your body is telling you to ease up - let it heal, don't just cover it up with a drug! No track meet or other athletic performance is worth your life.

References:

MedlinePlus - Methyl salicylate overdose

MedlinePlus - Sports cream overdose

CNN - Medical examiner: Sports cream caused teen's death

NLM Hazardous Substances Databank Methyl salicylate

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