In 2003, the chief executive of Metabolife International Inc., then the leading purveyor of herbal dietary supplements in the country, complained to me about the “negative media” concerning its top product, ephedra.
Ephedra was then heading toward a government ban, largely because of its links to heart attacks and strokes. The CEO, David Brown, insisted ephedra was generally safe. He said his company was the target of an irrational attack.
“It’s not like we’re dealing cocaine,” he said, setting the integrity bar a bit below what a public corporation should shoot for.
Since then, Ephedra has indeed been banned. Metabolife, owing millions of dollars in court judgments to injured users of the substance, has filed for bankruptcy in the final chapter of a checkered history: At one point it emerged that the company had received thousands of health complaints about ephedra while claiming to be unaware of a single report.
These are hints at the nature of the industry Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger climbed into bed with through his deal with American Media Inc. That’s the publisher of two bodybuilding magazines he was serving as “executive editor” until Friday night, when, under a barrage of criticism, he canceled his $8-million contract with the company.
Last week’s reports in this newspaper about the arrangement observed that supplement manufacturers are heavy advertisers in the magazines, “Flex” and “Muscle & Fitness.” This is inaccurate. Judging from the August issues, supplement manufacturers are pretty much the only advertisers in these magazines, which are little more than supplement sales catalogs wrapped around photo spreads of freakishly distended musculatures. Schwarzenegger, who has been close to the dietary supplement industry since his bodybuilding days, saw nothing wrong in his relationship with the magazines and their major advertisers. (He still doesn’t -- he’ll continue to contribute columns to both, and he’s keeping the money he already pocketed.)
But there’s nothing innocent about the supplement industry. It has been hawking its products for years using the same techniques perfected by cigarette manufacturers -- pushing them at kids by sponsoring athletic contests, lining up celebrity endorsements, downplaying evidence of adverse health effects.
When the governor got a chance last year to stem the flow of these substances into the bodies of schoolchildren, he blew it. The occasion was a bill sponsored by state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) that would have required student athletes to forswear in writing the use of any supplement appearing on a list to be compiled by state health authorities. The bill also forbade sponsorship or other deals between schools and supplement manufacturers, and required coaches to take a course educating them about the misuse of such substances.
Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. He said the Department of Health Services would be hard-pressed to come up with a roster of substances to ban, even though the bill recommended that it work from lists already compiled for college and Olympic athletes by other agencies.
In a veto message that read like a press release from an industry lobbyist, Schwarzenegger asserted that dietary supplements are already regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration and that the state should rely on the FDA to develop a “scientifically validated” list of harmful substances.
It’s hard to tell whether his allusion to the FDA was ignorant or cynical. He must have known that the FDA’s jurisdiction over these substances is sharply constrained by a 1994 law pushed by the outrageously influential supplements industry and known as the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. DSHEA prohibits the agency from regulating supplements as drugs or food additives.
Taking the industry line, the governor also asserted in his message that “most dietary supplements are safe.” It would be fantastic if we knew that to be true, but DSHEA imposes no obligation on the manufacturers to establish their products’ safety. In the rare cases where they have made an effort to do so -- the ephedrine lobby trotted out a few safety studies before the substance was banned -- the methodology was suspect and the results dubious. DSHEA places on the FDA the burden of proof that a substance is harmful, unlike the rule for drug makers, who must prove their products are safe before they can be marketed.
Sen. Speier believes that the governor comes by his tone-deafness about the supplements issue honestly: “I’ve never thought that he really appreciated the consequences of dietary supplements or steroids,” she told me. “After all, they made him who he is.”
Her new bill, which awaits final legislative approval, is more stringent in some ways than the vetoed version. Among the substances to be forsworn by student athletes it specifically lists synephrine, also known as “bitter orange,” which has replaced ephedrine as a top-selling supplement for weight loss and energy enhancement. It still mandates training coaches in avoiding supplement abuse, and prohibits school financial deals involving prohibited products.
The California Interscholastic Federation, which oversees school sports, has already taken similar action. In May, the CIF amended its bylaws to require that student athletes pledge to reject steroids (although not supplements), to bar schools from accepting sponsorships or donations from manufacturers of muscle-building supplements, and to require that by 2009 all coaches take a course covering the harmful effects of dietary supplements on adolescents.
Plainly it’s time for the governor to join the bandwagon, despite his spiritual and financial ties to the supplement makers. “I get it that he’s coming from a different place,” Speier says. “But these have no business being provided to high school athletes, and that’s what the bill is about.”
Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at firstname.lastname@example.org.