Lessons we can learn from the Mary J. Blige doping scandal.

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Jan. 15 2008 5:04 PM

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.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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.

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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.