Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger kept his job as executive editor of two muscle magazines -- and continued to collect a portion of ad revenue as payment -- for five months after telling one of the publications’ top executives that he found the ads for steroid-like substances and penis enlargement inappropriate.
Schwarzenegger, who agreed to take the editorial post two days before being sworn in as governor, had been employed by Flex and Muscle & Fitness magazines for more than a year before writing the letter.
His contract with the company that publishes the magazines promised him at least $5 million -- more if their ad revenue rose. Much of the money was generated by ads for dietary supplements, some of whose safety is questioned by medical experts. Schwarzenegger no longer takes payments from American Media Inc., the owner of Flex and Muscle & Fitness, although he continues to write columns for both publications.
In the letter to Flex editor Peter McGough, the governor said he would sign an editorial denouncing efforts to limit the availability of dietary supplements. He also promised to speak to a gathering of supplement manufacturers at a bodybuilding exposition he sponsors each March in Ohio.
But he criticized the publications’ ads and urged that the magazines “ensure that we do not leave ourselves open to criticism of misrepresentation by some of the ads we currently allow in Muscle & Fitness and Flex.”
“These are ads which promote supplements as having almost ‘anabolic steroid’ properties both in the name of the products and the way their benefits are described,” Schwarzenegger said in the letter, dated Feb. 25, 2005. “For us to be successful in winning our dietary supplement case in the court of public opinion, I feel we need to ensure that we adhere to a higher standard than that shown by these ads.”
Noting that many teenagers read the publications, Schwarzenegger went on to say: “I see ads in both magazines for penis enlargement treatments and various sexual aids. I feel these ads are counterproductive to us.”
Schwarzenegger canceled his contract with American Media in July, a day after news reports made the terms of the deal public. The company still pays $250,000 a year to the governor’s nonprofit Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Before he quit, Schwarzenegger was paid at least $1.5 million.
The Times reviewed the advertising in 19 editions of the two magazines, the most recent dated September 2005. The September editions are the last ones in which Schwarzenegger will be listed as executive editor, although he will continue to provide an advice column for bodybuilders, the magazines’ editors say.
In Flex, 85% of the ads were for dietary supplements; in Muscle & Fitness, such products were touted in 80% of the ads. Products ranged from energy bars and caffeinated drinks to pills and powders marketed to readers wanting to boost their energy, enlarge their muscles, lose weight and enhance athletic and sexual performance.
Dietary supplements include common vitamins, proteins and herbs. Some “natural” products are virtually the same as drugs sold over the counter and by prescription. Some herbs and combinations of them have effects that are little understood.
“Even those of us who have worked in this field for many years look at the ingredient list and can’t identify about half of them,” said Dr. Christine Haller, an expert on supplements at the UC San Francisco medical school.
What some of the products advertised in the two magazines contain and what effect they have on people are not clear. State and federal regulators have brought false-advertising suits against some of the manufacturers, alleging that there is no proof their wares work as claimed.
McGough said the advertisements are not the responsibility of the magazines’ editorial department.
“We believe in supplements. We believe in the science of supplements,” he said at his office in Woodland Hills. The magazine has tightened the “review policy for ads,” though “some of these ads that are booked way in advance are difficult to turn off.”
“I would like to see less dramatic blurbs,” he said. “But it is the nature of advertising. It is the nature of the industry.”
Schwarzenegger’s association with the magazines dates back decades; he first appeared on a cover in 1969. His spokeswoman Margita Thompson said the governor “will stay with the magazines, certainly.” But she also said he “doesn’t direct the advertising policy of the magazines.”
“Holding a position on a magazine does not mean you are endorsing that product,” she said.
She noted that newspapers, including The Times, have carried supplement ads.
Other muscle magazines carry the same kinds of ads as Flex and Muscle & Fitness. Those two magazines have by far the largest circulation among muscle publications.
Some of the ads they carry offer substances that, at first glance, seem to be steroids or human growth hormone. In Flex, one advertiser proclaims its product goes “beyond pharmaceutical growth hormone.”
Steroids and growth hormone cannot be sold without prescriptions.
Another advertiser, Mexicans Pharmacy, refers readers to its website, which offers “the most powerful product available bar none. If your [sic] looking for a high potency Steroid, don’t bother anymore.” Its products sell for as much as $249.95 a bottle.
Mexicans Pharmacy does not appear to be based south of the border. Its phone number is in a town near Scranton, Pa. A man who identified himself as the owner declined to discuss his business in any detail.
Unlike pharmaceutical companies, makers of dietary supplements do not have to prove their products are safe. Rather, if the U.S. Food & Drug Administration wants to regulate a supplement, the agency must document that the product is unsafe -- a process that can take years.
Nonetheless, the FDA, whose authority to regulate dietary supplements is limited, has warned against some supplements.
One is yohimbine, extracted from a tree’s bark and commonly included in bodybuilding, weight-loss and male sexual performance products. On its website, the FDA says it is investigating reports that yohimbine has “serious adverse effects, including renal [kidney] failure, seizures and death.”
Yohimbine is an ingredient in Lipo 6, the leading product of a company called Nutrex Research, which is one of the major advertisers in the two magazines. Nutrex Research, a Florida-based company, sells weight-loss and bodybuilding products. Nutrex co-founder Jeff McCarrell said Flex and Muscle & Fitness “are our vehicle for marketing, probably the biggest vehicle.”
Asked whether yohimbine is hazardous, McCarrell said: “Where are the adverse effects?” and answered himself by saying, “The worst case is people might get chills.”
Another substance that the FDA has moved against is ephedra, which the agency banned last year after it was linked to heart attacks and several deaths. The ban was overturned by a federal judge in Utah this year.
The largest single advertiser in the two magazines is a Canadian supplement maker, MuscleTech Research & Development Inc., which is among the companies fending off suits by people who contend they became ill after taking products containing ephedra.
MuscleTech, whose representatives declined to discuss its ads, spends roughly $10 million a year advertising in the magazines and intends to spend $100 million over a 10-year period, according to a MuscleTech executive’s deposition in a lawsuit against the company.
“There is an interdependence between the magazines and the company,” said Riverside lawyer John Tiedt, who has brought more than 50 suits over ephedra-linked illness and death.
Federal officials have also taken action on diet pills. Regulators have sued manufacturers over claims for pills that promise weight loss.
In July, the Federal Trade Commission filed a false advertising suit against New Jersey dietary supplement marketer Robert Chinery over the product Xenadrine-EFX, which is regularly advertised in Muscle & Fitness.
Schwarzenegger’s movie “Terminator 3" had a jackknifed big-rig truck in several shots. Prominently spelled out on the side of the truck is the product name Xenadrine-EFX.
New Jersey attorney Brian Molloy, who represents Chinery, declined to discuss the case.
Despite Schwarzenegger’s cancellation of his contract with American Media, the deal continues to generate problems for him. Democrats have accused the Republican governor of a conflict of interest and introduced bills this week aimed at preventing governors from making outside income.
State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) is author of a bill, likely to reach the governor this month, that would ban high school athletes from using supplements already prohibited by college and other amateur sports organizations. The governor vetoed a similar bill last year, saying, “Most dietary supplements are safe.”
As he promised in the February letter, Schwarzenegger signed an editorial in the June edition of Muscle & Fitness titled “In Defense of Supplements.” In it, he said he was “energized to fight any attempt to limit the availability of nutritional supplements.”