Despite laws, sales of HGH are booming
A federal crackdown on illicit foreign supplies of human growth hormone has failed to stop rampant misuse, and instead has driven record sales of the drug by some of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies, an Associated Press investigation shows.
The crackdown, which began in 2006, reduced the illegal flow of unregulated supplies from China, India and Mexico.
But since then, Big Pharma has been satisfying the steady desires of U.S. users and abusers, including many who take the drug in the false hope of delaying the effects of aging.
Peddled as an elixir of life capable of turning middle-aged bodies into lean machines, HGH — a synthesized form of the growth hormone made naturally by the human pituitary gland — winds up in the eager hands of affluent, aging users who hope to slow or even reverse the aging process.
Experts say these folks don't need the drug, and may be harmed by it. The supposed fountain-of-youth medicine can cause enlargement of breast tissue, carpal tunnel syndrome and swelling of hands and feet. Ironically, it also can contribute to aging ailments like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Endocrinologists estimate there are fewer than 45,000 U.S. patients who might legitimately take HGH. They would be expected to use roughly 180,000 prescriptions or refills each year, given that typical patients get three months' worth of HGH at a time, according to doctors and distributors.
Yet U.S. pharmacies last year supplied almost twice that much HGH — 340,000 orders — according to AP's analysis of IMS Health data.
First marketed in 1985 for children with stunted growth, HGH soon was misappropriated by adults intent on exploiting its modest muscle- and bone-building qualities. Congress limited HGH distribution to the handful of rare conditions in an extraordinary 1990 law, overriding the generally unrestricted right of doctors to prescribe medicines as they see fit.
Despite the law, illicit HGH spread around the sports world in the 1990s, making deep inroads into bodybuilding, college athletics, and professional leagues from baseball to cycling. The even larger banned market among older adults has flourished more recently.
FDA regulations ban the sale of HGH as an anti-aging drug. In fact, since 1990, prescribing it for things like weight loss and strength conditioning has been punishable by 5 to 10 years in prison.
“It's an easy ruse. People equate hormones with youth,” said Dr. Tom Perls, who does aging research at Boston University. “It's a marketing dream come true.”