Illegal Nutritional Supplements

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 What Makes Nutritional Supplements Illegal?

In 2004, the FDA cracked down on the manufacture, sale, and distribution of the well-known nutritional supplements Andro and Ephedra. A year later, Congress passed the Anabolic Steroid Control Act. By amending the Controlled Substances Act, designer steroids and steroid precursors are now illegal to trade or use.

These drugs, including Andro and THG, are now considered Schedule III drugs, the same as actual anabolic steroids.

What’s at Stake When it Comes to Performance-Enhancing Drugs?

Athletes have used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) for decades, even centuries. In 1967, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned PEDs, created a new Medical Commission, and established a list of banned substances to promote fair play. In the following years, drug-testing programs were implemented worldwide to promote fair play and safeguard athletes’ health and safety.

Founded in 1999, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) promotes and coordinates international efforts to combat doping in sports. A project of the International Olympic Committee, WADA, was founded with the support and participation of intergovernmental organizations, governments, public authorities, and other public and private organizations fighting doping in sports.

How Does a Substance Get Banned?

The World Anti-Doping Agency is regarded as the international standard for identifying prohibited substances and methods. The Prohibited List of banned substances is updated each year by WADA. For substances to be included on the Prohibited List, they must meet at least two of the following criteria:

  1. It is possible or proven that a substance enhances sports performance.
  2. There is evidence that athletes are at risk of health issues.
  3. In accordance with the World Anti-Doping Code, use violates the “spirit of sport.”

The banned substance list includes anabolic-androgenic steroids, peptide hormones, growth factors, erythropoiesis stimulators, hormone modulators, stimulants, diuretics, masking agents, and others.

Sports organizations create their own lists based on substances that might harm athletes or provide unfair advantages despite WADA setting the international standard. International, national, professional, amateur, and student sports organizations maintain banned substance lists that are updated yearly. Athletes caught with banned substances face sanctions on eligibility for athletic participation, reputational damage, the loss of prizes and medals, and potential health risks.

Banned Substances and Dietary Supplements

Approximately 40% to 70% of athletes use dietary supplements, and 10% to 15% may contain prohibited substances. In spite of the fact that many dietary supplement manufacturing companies make every effort to produce quality products, unethical individuals and companies continue to manufacture and distribute intentionally adulterated or misbranded products. Weight loss, sexual enhancement, and sports supplements are the most commonly adulterated dietary supplements.

Over the past decade, 51% of class I drug recalls in the United States have been for dietary supplements as opposed to pharmaceuticals, and reports indicate that dietary supplements can contain contaminants. Often, athletes’ dietary supplements become contaminated due to pharmaceutical adulteration, which occurs when an active pharmaceutical is included in the product without being listed on the label. Drugs that were previously approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and then withdrawn, drugs that were used in other countries and never FDA-approved experimental drugs that had minimal or no human testing, veterinary drugs, and other novel drugs can be considered pharmaceutical adulterants.

The addition of some compounds to dietary supplements without assessments for efficacy, safety, or toxicity is also intended to avoid regulations and evade standard detection and identification.

In an interview, a former chair of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s drug-testing committee said that most college students who test positive for drugs do so because of over-the-counter dietary supplements that contain steroids. How can consumers and athletes determine which products will likely contain banned substances or their markers when browsing shelves and aisles in stores and on the web?

What Should Athletes Consider?

Before purchasing and consuming dietary supplements, consumers and athletes should weigh the following considerations:

  1. Learn about applicable banned substance lists. Since many ingredients in dietary supplements appear on banned substance lists, athletes should be aware if their sporting organization has a list of banned substances.
  2. The use of any product by athletes is at their own risk due to strict liability. It is common for sports organizations to hold athletes to strict liability, which means they are solely responsible if metabolites or markers of banned substances are detected in their biofluids, regardless of whether they intentionally or inadvertently ingested the substance.
  3. It is important to understand that supplement regulations differ from those governing food and drugs. Many consumers, including athletes, assume that dietary supplements follow the same (or similar) regulations as over-the-counter or prescription medications. The safety and efficacy of dietary supplements are not subject to the same evidence standards as medications sold to consumers. Drugs are considered unsafe until proven otherwise by the FDA before entering the market. The approval process for dietary supplements is not followed, and they are instead considered safe until contrary evidence is presented.
  4. If a claim on a label seems too good to be true, it probably is. Red flags include claims such as “improve your oxygen utilization,” “grow 10 pounds of muscle in a week,” “incinerate fat,” and “get immediate results in energy, size, and strength.” Despite the fact that a claim might sound enticing to athletes looking for a competitive edge, extreme caution should be exercised. The advertisement of awards won does not guarantee that a product is safe; in fact, such advertising may suggest that a product contains banned substances.
  5. Make sure you read the ingredients list and understand what each ingredient does. It is important for consumers, especially athletes, to read the entire ingredient list, understand what each ingredient is, and know how much of each ingredient is contained in each serving. In spite of the fact that new ingredients are appearing in products, there are few or no peer-reviewed publications assessing their pharmacology, toxicology, and safety. A compound may be a banned substance or produce a marker for a banned substance.
  6. Dietary supplements are often contaminated with stimulants. In 2012,’s “Supplement of the Year” contained a methamphetamine analog, and when this drug fell out of favor, another dangerous and banned stimulant was introduced. Additionally, estrogenic compounds and anabolic agents, including anabolic-androgenic steroids, are frequently found in products marketed to athletes.

Selling or Possessing Designer Steroids and Steroids Precursors Is Punishable by Law

The Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 2004 defines designer steroids and steroid precursors as Schedule III drugs and imposes federal penalties for both the illicit possession and sale of steroids. The following are the federal penalties for both possession and sale of steroids:

  • Simple possession with no prior offenses
    • Up to a year in federal prison; or
    • Minimum fine of $1,000.
  • Simple possession with certain prior convictions
    • Minimum 15 days in prison and up to two years in prison; or
    • Minimum fine of $2,000.
  • Possession with intent to sell
    • Up to five years in prison; or
    • Minimum fine of $5,000.

Although steroids and supplements are not always a high priority for law enforcement officers, recent attention brought by steroid use in professional athletes may increase arrests. This is reflected by recent state decisions to test high school students for performance-enhancing drugs.

Should I Hire a Lawyer?

A drug lawyer can advise you of your rights and defenses if you’ve been charged. If your case goes to trial, your lawyer can also defend you. It may also be possible to reduce your sentence if you accept a plea bargain with the help of an attorney.


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