Wednesday, October 9, 2002
Updated: October 10, 6:23 PM ET
Congressmen introduce anti-andro bill
By Luke Cyphers
ESPN The Magazine
Congress may send the Mark McGwire pill to the showers.
Two Republican congressmen, including former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, on Wednesday introduced a bill in Washington to reclassify androstenedione and other steroid pre-cursors as controlled substances, effectively taking them off the market.
"Andro," as it came to be known in sports circles, gained notoriety when it was revealed that McGwire used it during his record-breaking 70-home run season with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998. The news set off the explosion in popularity of the substance, which is sold over-the-counter as a dietary supplement.
Rep. John E. Sweeney, R-N.Y., introduced the bill, calling substances such as andro and other pre-hormonal supplements "a serious public health issue" with an adverse effect on the integrity of professional and amateur athletic competition.
Andro and other so-called "pro-hormones" have been marketed as supplements that, when ingested, convert to testosterone in the human body and build muscle. In effect, andro has been sold as a legal way to gain the benefits of using anabolic steroids, which are controlled substances.
Many scientists disagree that andro works as an anabolic steroid, saying that it is more likely to convert to the female hormone estrogen and produce breast tissue in males rather than muscle mass.
But when McGwire admitted during the 1998 baseball season to using andro to help him recover from workouts, sales soared -- especially among teenagers, who can buy it at nutrition stores and on the Internet.
Elite athletes in sports such as track and field and the NFL, where andro use is banned, also have taken the substance. Sports officials in several countries say the use of dietary supplements containing such steroid precursors has caused dozens of athletes to test positive for steroids.
The bill has the support of the U.S. Antidoping Agency, the group charged with ferreting out drug cheats in Olympic sports. On hand at Wednesday's news conference in Washington was Frank Shorter, the USADA chairman, as well as U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Lloyd Ward and Olympic speedskating gold medalist Christine Witty. The NCAA and NFL have also expressed support for the bill.
"I think it's great. People were definitely taking supplements they thought were safe, and hidden in there were health risks," Witty said. "Everybody believes supplements are safe and they're taking this stuff even going beyond the recommended dosage on the label. You're talking about using an awful lot of what is a serious drug."
"The message of this bill is clear and pretty simple," Shorter said. "There was a loophole in the law when it was written and when people weren't aware of these steroid precursors. This just closes that loophole."
The bill's language does not enter the debate over whether andro and related substances such as 19-norandrostenedione are effective as muscle-builders. It simply calls for classifying as a controlled substance "the immediate precursor of a scheduled anabolic steroid, without regard to & the requirement that the substance promote muscle growth."
Andro has been legal thanks to liberalization of the United States' dietary supplement laws in 1994. Substances sold as dietary supplements aren't subject to the same regulatory scrutiny as those classified as drugs and can be introduced on the market without prior testing for safety or effectiveness.
Steroids have long been known to have harmful side effects, including heart, liver and kidney damage, as well as acne and, in heavy users, breast tissue growth in males.
"If your body were a factory, andro and these other precursors would be a controlled substance, because they get converted in the body into testosterone," Shorter said. "The body is just the last step in the production line, so there's no reason they can't be regulated the same way steroids are.
"People need to remember that andro was developed by East Germans to get steroids into teenage girl swimmers as efficiently as possible," he said. "We've seen with these women's health problems and sex changes and the birth defects of their children what these substances can do."
The bill is the second major action against andro producers this year. In July, a class action suit was filed against several manufacturers of andro and other prohormones, accusing them of fraudulent marketing and selling ineffective and dangerous products.
"You have to do this step by step," Shorter said. "You take your easiest problem, and your easiest is precursors. It can be explained why this is a problem in three sentences."
Vincent Lynch, an attorney for the Tampa law firm of Trenam, Kemker, and filer of the suit, applauded the proposed change in the law. He says studies he is presenting in the lawsuit show "no increase in testosterone or muscle enhancement" from andro use, but that taking the stuff can lead to adverse reactions, especially in children.
"The bottom line is andro has all the negative side effects of steroid use," Lynch says, "and none of the benefits."