Lessons From the Celebrity Doping Scandal

When will the press understand the difference between HGH and anabolic steroids?

Mary J. Blige. Click image to expand.
Mary J. Blige

Congress heard testimony today on the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball, but the biggest steroid news of the week comes from the entertainment world. According to a report published Sunday in the Albany Times-Union, an ongoing drug investigation in New York and Florida has turned up the names of five prominent entertainers—Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent, Timbaland, Wyclef Jean, and Tyler Perry. According to the newspaper, anonymous sources reveal that “Blige and other stars were shipped prescribed human growth hormone or steroids,” and four of the five received shipments of both drugs.

You may not be shocked to learn that celebrities take illegal drugs or artificially enhance their looks. But this dog-bites-man story supports the notion that we’re in the midst of a national doping epidemic—born in the locker room and spreading through health clubs, concert venues, and even suburban schoolyards. (At a 2005 congressional hearing on steroid use in football, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., claimed that one in 14 middle-school girls have tried anabolic steroids.) In particular, it reinforces a central myth of the war on doping: that all performance-enhancing drugs are the same, and it’s just as bad to take human growth hormone as it is to shoot up with Deca-Durabolin.

As I’ve pointed out before, HGH and anabolic steroids are as different as marijuana and black-tar heroin. Growth hormone helps you lose fat and put on lean body tissue—it’s great for bare-chested stage acts —but it doesn’t improve athletic performance. (In fact, let’s stop calling it a “performance-enhancing” drug, once and for all.) Anabolic steroids, on the other hand, have been shown to increase strength and cardiovascular fitness: They give athletes a real edge in competition. (Click here for a discussion of why Mary J. Blige might have been on the juice.)

HGH also has very mild side effects, compared with steroids. Taking growth-hormone injections may cause reversible joint pain, carpal tunnel, and proto-diabetes. Press accounts often cite claims from anti-HGH crusaders like Thomas Perls that it causes cancer and other grave health problems—but these have been more clearly associated with acromegaly patients (who naturally overproduce HGH) than patients on controlled dosages. Meanwhile, anabolic steroids have been shown to cause testicular shrinkage, increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, and other maladies. Steroids might also cause aggressive, dangerous behavior, as suggested by the murder-suicide of Chris Benoit.

(Even baseball’s Mitchell report—the hadith of the doping jihad—admits that human growth hormone isn’t as bad as steroids. The introduction concedes that HGH doesn’t really enhance performance, and its listed side effects don’t sound as awful as the ones for steroids.)

Federal law (for once) appropriately reflects the relative risks associated with these drugs. Anabolic steroids are Schedule III controlled substances, which means it can be a crime even to possess them. But you won’t get in trouble in the United States for having a few vials of human growth hormone: The feds can only go after the dealers (under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act) for selling meds without a proper prescription.

But those who prosecute the war on doping tend to ignore these differences. When you lump together HGH and anabolic steroids, the problem seems much bigger and more immediate. According to the Times-Union, the celebrity dopers exposed on Sunday were among “tens of thousands of people who may have used or received prescribed shipments of steroids and injectable human growth hormone in recent years.” The newspaper blithely assumes that anyone who’s using HGH is also using anabolic steroids, though it’s not at all clear which of these masses were using which drugs. The article goes on to make the nonsensical claim that “the use of steroids and human growth hormone … illustrates how pervasive steroids use in the United States has become.” 

News reports on doping confuse the two drugs with alarming regularity. An earlier Times-Union story about the same investigation in New York and Florida described the seizure of “mail-order steroids” at the home of former pitcher Jason Grimsley. But a search warrant affidavit posted on the Smoking Gun shows that federal agents seized two kits of human growth hormone, not anabolic steroids.

Coverage of the celebrity doping scandal in other newspapers treats HGH and steroids as if they were interchangeable. The New York Times describes how “the drugs” have some legitimate uses, but “misuse of the drugs can be harmful.” The Associated Press declared without qualification that “athletes use steroids and human growth hormone to get bigger, faster and stronger,” and that “the drugs lure other people with their supposed anti-aging qualities.”

Slate is just as guilty. We conflated the two medications in a feature called “The Steroids Social Network,” which listed the baseball players and trainers named by confessed drug dealer Kirk Radomski in the Mitchell report. In fact, more than one-third of the 53 players were accused of taking HGH only and have never been linked to steroids.

How did this confusion become so widespread?  First, both drugs are being dispensed by the same crooked doctors and pharmacies. (And, in many cases, doctors do prescribe both drugs to the same patient.) When federal agents raid an “anti-aging” clinic in Florida, they aren’t so concerned with the specific meds that went to each user; they’re gathering evidence for a broader case against the dealers. Embedded reporters watch the feds seize thousands of pounds of documents from file cabinets and dumpsters, and then file ambiguous copy about the sales of performance-enhancing drugs, “including steroids and human growth hormone.”

Second, the rhetoric of a war on drugs makes it impossible for a league commissioner or politician to draw any real distinctions between doping agents. Neither Bud Selig nor the lawmakers who questioned him today can risk appearing soft on performance enhancers, even when it comes to a soft drug like HGH. Now Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., are trying to codify this dunderheaded posturing: Each has introduced a bill to amend the Controlled Substances Act so that human growth hormone would be equivalent to anabolic steroids under federal law.

That would be a disturbing development. At this point, the federal drug laws are the only rational voice left in the doping debate.