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PUMPING Up Steroid Hysteria

by Patrick Cox

This article originally appeared February 11, 2004 in Tech Central Station. It has been reprinted with permission. [http://www.techcentralstation.com]

Perhaps because I lagged well behind my peer group, physically at least, until I was well into my twenties, most of my childhood associations with sports are unpleasant. The shortest and most physically maladroit kid in class after class after class, I was the perennial last-pick when teams formed on playgrounds or PE classes.

Today, my eyes still glaze over when friends talk playoffs and draft picks, and the only games I really care about are those my eleven-year-old son participates in. I suppose it is ironic, therefore, that a serious car accident, while in college, has forced me into a lifelong study of exercise physiology, kinesiology and other sports-related sciences. As sufficient muscle mass seems to be the only alternative to a spinal brace and handfuls of painkillers, I have found myself following or involved in discussions with athletes and trainers more often than many sports writers.

Those associated with bodybuilding, in particular, have pushed the envelope of muscle growth to the greatest extent and are particularly knowledgeable concerning training injuries. While flexing in a bikini bottom probably fails some definitions of sport, no other group trains harder or is as interested and involved in the scientific research behind their sport.

And, like other elite athletes, many take anabolic steroids.

President Bush, a former managing partner of the Texas Rangers, addressed the issue in his State of the Union speech.

"The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football, and other sports is dangerous, and it sends the wrong message -- that there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character. So tonight I call on team owners, union representatives, coaches, and players to take the lead, to send the right signal, to get tough, and to get rid of steroids now."

Pundits and sports writers alike have puzzled over the unexpected inclusion of the steroid issue in the speech. My own theory is that the comments are penance meant to appease cultural conservatives who were unhappy about the President's friendly public appearances with the Governor of California, who has brazenly used drugs in the past.

For dedicated drug warriors, Schwarzenegger is a particular irritant. Despite smoking marijuana onscreen in Pumping Iron and confessing his steroid use on national television, his unprecedented popularity and success in bodybuilding, show biz and politics makes it difficult to paint cannabis smokers as "losers" or steroid users as mere "cheats."

The other admitted steroid-using governor/athlete was professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, whom they could ignore. Arnold cannot be ignored.

Whatever the president's reasons for including the issue in the SOTU, his repetition of defective assumptions about steroid use will likely have far-ranging and unfortunate consequences. 

Most notably, the president repeated the adage that "The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids ... is dangerous."

The medical evidence simply does not support such a statement. On the contrary, the most commonly taken and prescribed anabolic steroid, testosterone, effectively ameliorates many of the symptoms of aging, including loss of libido (for women and men,) lean muscle mass, and memory. An estimated 2 million U.S. prescriptions for testosterone were written in 2002 and IMS Health has calculated nearly 30 percent annual growth rates.

While skeptical researchers warn that additional research is needed, as they always will, the evidence indicates that the feared downsides of steroid use, such as heart disease and prostate cancer, have been greatly overstated or contrary to their actual effects. Studies correlate low testosterone levels to Alzheimer's disease and obesity.

The more potent androgens, traditionally acquired on the black market by athletes, have suffered even worse press than testosterone, in large part because they are schedule III drugs -- as are barbiturates, ketamine, LSD precursors, and narcotic painkillers such as Vicodin. Much of what is now known about the benefits of these steroids, by the way, is a result of their successful use by the HIV community to improve, dramatically in many cases, the health and survivability of immunodeficient patients. As AIDS and age-related wasting have much in common, the potential for steroid therapy to increase and maintain vigor and muscle mass through and past middle age is profound.

Nandrolone Decanoate is a powerful component, along with Testosterone Cypionate, of a synergistic "stack" popular among athletes. "Longevity clinics," having learned from the experiences of millions of illegal steroid users, are now prescribing, at boutique prices, these drugs. In clinical trials, Nandrolone has been shown to bolster immune system functioning, counter the effects of malnutrition and muscle loss experienced by dialysis patients, increase bone mineral density and dramatically improve the well-being of elderly patients with Osteoporosis.

Tracy Olrich, of Central Michigan University's Department of Physical Education and Sport, says the emerging consensus is that benefits of therapeutic steroid use vastly outweigh the risks, and points out that, for decades, according to conservative estimates, over a million people at any one time have taken illegal steroids. Only eleven deaths, and most of them only indirectly caused by steroids, he says, have been linked to their use. "Compare that," Olrich prompts, "to smoking, liposuction or bicycle riding."

Liposuction's shockingly high death rate is estimated to be between 30 and 1000 per million patients. An equally useful comparison would be to the sporting activities steroids supposedly imperil; amateur football, for example. According to the University of North Carolina-based National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injuries, out of the approximately 1.5 million American football players in junior high, high-school and college. Fifteen died in 2002 -- down from 23 in 2001.

Throw in heatstroke deaths and paralysis, and football stats read like a Dean Koontz horror novel, though track and field, baseball, and even cheerleading have greater incidences of catastrophic injuries. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recorded 88 deaths in youth league baseball from 1973 to 1995. Other researchers estimate more than 100,000 acute baseball injuries, including serious eye traumas, annually in 5- to 14-year-old children.

It is no secret that, even without a career-ending injury, many professional athletes retire with various degrees of infirmity. Obviously, opposition to athletic steroid use has never been about health. It is about using government to create an image of "fairness" for the sports industry.

Rick Collins, perhaps the leading authority on steroid law and author of the book, Legal Muscle, says that the stripping of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson's 100-meter gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, after testing positive for stanozolol, prompted the media frenzy that led to Congressional action. He explains, "The Congress of the late 1980's, intent upon 'leveling the playing field,' seems to have simply assumed that the terrible dangers of these hormones were well established, and didn't want to hear otherwise. Congress ignored the representatives of government regulatory agencies including the FDA, the DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse who testified against the proposed amendment to the law. Congress disregarded the American Medical Association's position that steroid abuse does not lead to the physical or psychological dependence required for scheduling."

"It was to appease the organized sports lobby and restore public confidence in sports," Collins says, "that Congress passed the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990, adding steroids to the federal schedule of controlled substances.

"But the law and similar state statutes reach far beyond the Olympic and elite level athletes for which they were originally intended. Most people using steroids non-medically are not competitive athletes. The laws criminalize 'cosmetic' and unprescripted therapeutic steroid use for all mature adults, including the millions who are using them illegally simply to lose weight and gain muscle, and prevent physicians from prescribing steroids to healthy adults for such purposes.

"Did the approach work on the original problem? Well, here we are -- many years, numerous hearings and one sweeping law later -- back at 'square one,' still wrestling with the same problem of steroids in sports. Worse still, the legislation actually created new problems, such as a massive foreign black market, a culture of professional ignorance within the medical community, and a slew of arrests and prosecutions of mature non-competing users for personal use possession."

Germane to this issue are all the usual anti-prohibitionist arguments explicated by William Buckley, founder of the pro-legalization National Review magazine, Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, and George Schultz, President Reagan's adviser who served as both secretary of state and the treasury. The difference, of course, is that other drugs with similar possession penalties lack the dramatic therapeutic attributes of steroids.

Certainly, the sports business has the right to try to eliminate performance-enhancing drugs, just as it has the recreational sort, gambling, spousal abuse and infidelity. All efforts should be made to keep them out of the hands of children, but you don't have to be an economist to predict that nothing will end steroid use in professions where only a slight, marginal increase in strength or speed can translate into tens of millions of dollars. For athletes who can easily afford to jet down to a Tijuana sports clinic for legal, discreet bimonthly injections of designer steroids, invisible to testing technologies, performance-enhancing drugs are not just rational, they are a competitive necessity.

Though I have no experience with illegal steroids, I have taken the less powerful but legal, under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1993, "prohormones." These precursors convert in the body to muscle building androgens and, especially when dealing with my spinal condition, they have been enormously helpful in building the cushion and support that prevent extreme pain and the loss of nerve signal. Many of my middle-aged and older friends have, similarly, used over-the-counter prohormone products to deal with the increasingly difficult goal, due to reductions in natural hormone levels with age, of maintaining muscle and healing from training and other injuries.

Because a thriving market exists for these products, there are a wide variety of prohormone products and many are actually more useful than those available by prescription, if you can find a cooperative, knowledgeable doctor. For instance, short-acting testosterone or nandralone precursor products, created by the bodybuilder scientist who has pioneered the field of steroidal prohormones, Patrick Arnold, provide the benefits of FDA-approved patches and injectables but are far less likely do "down-regulate" natural testosterone production.

Unfortunately, the President's steroid lecture has added considerable wind to the sails of those calling for a ban on these legal OTC "performance-enhancing substances." Sen. Joseph Biden introduced the "Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2003" that would expand the current list of 27 illegal compounds to over 50 compounds and expressly named isomers, plus all their salts, esters and ethers. The thriving over-the-counter prohormone or "andro" market would be destroyed.

"Significantly," Collins notes, "the bill ... would direct the U.S. Sentencing Commission to consider raising the punishments for all steroid offenses.

"If the bill is passed, the likely result will be that tomorrow's penalties -- including prison terms -- for possession of andro products will be significantly higher than today's penalties for possession of traditional anabolic steroids. It's also likely that state laws will be amended to conform to the new federal schedule, empowering local law enforcement to arrest mature adults and prosecute them in state court for possessing even a single prohormone tablet. The bill already has at least five co-sponsors, including influential Senators Orrin Hatch, Tom Harkin, and John McCain."

As millions of customers have been introduced to the benefits of androgen supplementation through legal prohormones, one can safely assume that many will turn to the black market for replacements if they are banned. One can also assume that this is exactly what organized criminals wish to happen.

Lastly, I think I should point out that my father died from wasting-related complications when a series of ailments prevented him from working out, as he had done his whole life. I was unsuccessful in convincing him or his doctor to use steroids to counter his failing strength and immune system, largely because of the prevalence of the sort of anti-steroid hysteria that has been encouraged by the president's comments. I believe firmly that he would be alive today if our society had not put the interests of professional sports ahead of the people's.

About the Author

Patrick Cox is an economist and editorial columnist in Central Florida where he lives on an island in a remnant of original everglades. He has worked for various market-oriented policy groups as well as a consultant for tech firms in Silicon Valley. His work has appeared in various publications including the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Reason Magazine.