Sen. Orrin Hatch took the commendable action last week of drafting a bill to stop the proliferation of dangerous synthetic steroids known as SARMs, which are sold to bodybuilders as a shortcut to growing bigger muscles.
The proposed SARMs Control Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., is a big step in the right direction — yet it still doesn’t go far enough to solve this glaring health danger to American consumers.
Pharmaceutical companies are developing the drugs — Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators — to treat diseases such as cancer that cause muscles to degenerate. SARMs work by mimicking the effects of testosterone. Despite being banned by most professional and college sports governing bodies, SARMs remain popular with younger athletes and would-be bodybuilders since pills and capsules are easier to take than testosterone, which requires injections.
No SARMs have yet been approved by the FDA; in fact, studies on many were dropped for rapidly causing cancer in test animals. Even so, SARMs are openly peddled by so-called “nutritional supplement” companies who sell the drugs on the internet without fear of consequence.
Meanwhile, retailers and distributors who profit from this scheme falsely claim their sales fall into a "gray area" of the law, because pharmaceutical companies are actively researching SARMs — implying that the open use of the drugs is legal if the packaging contains coded language. Their argument goes that, as long as the labels say "for research purposes only" or “not for human consumption,” then selling SARMs is perfectly legal. In reality, such a loophole could never exist, since experimental drugs must be registered with the FDA and are, ipso facto, illegal to sell or give to anyone without a supervising scientist and a Drug Enforcement Administration control number.
For years the sale of SARMs has continued unabated. Fly-by-night companies quickly rake in millions of dollars selling the intellectual property of others, while putting vulnerable young people in harms way. Like steroids, SARMs users can develop heart problems, liver failure, sterility and, for young people, stunted growth. Worse still, since SARMs have not been subject to long-term health studies, many side effects remain unknown.
Under the guise of athleticism, the illicit-supplement industry is creating a shadow generation of drug abusers whose lifestyle often leads to illegal stimulants and anabolic steroids.
The proposed SARMs Control Act follows a year of increased public scrutiny from the FDA, industry groups such as the Council for Responsible Nutrition, and national media coverage from the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, which have documented the growing problem and the law’s inability to catch up to science.2 comments on this story
This is where the SARMs Control Act falls short. Although it protects consumers by expanding the DEA's power to investigate and arrest those who import and sell SARMs, and promises strict sentences for those who would break the law, it provides nothing in the way of comprehensive reform of the supplement industry. As such, it will likely just become a part of the broad patchwork of ad hoc legislation created in response to the cat-and-mouse game regulators play with profiteers, which ultimately confuses law-abiding supplement makers.
Low barriers to entry, intermittent law enforcement and an endless supply of inexpensive illicit substances shipped daily to the U.S. from Chinese distributors create an incentive structure that the SARMs Control Act will not alter.
American consumers would be best served by empowering the FDA with the ability to fine wrongdoers and giving the FDA and DEA the funding they need to dedicate more investigators to wiping out this threat to our safety.