Archive for Growth Hormone (HGH)

Is This Really the Best Allocation of Resources?

NY Times:

A test similar to one used in cancer treatments has antidoping officials encouraged that they have found a new, and important, way to catch athletes using human growth hormone.

The test uses the same science that detects bone and breast cancer. A laboratory technician takes several milliliters of blood and spins the sample in a centrifuge. The blood is then mixed with chemicals, a reaction occurs and an instrument is used to measure the illumination in the blood.

The intensity of the light, antidoping experts say, signals whether the person has used H.G.H. over the past 10 to 14 days. The procedure is known as the biomarkers test.

So, all that equipment and labor that is extremely scarce can now be put to work catching athletes dumb enough to use a substance that doesn’t enhance performance instead of aiding cancer victims. Nice tradeoff.

I also found this quote telling (all science quotes were from anti-doping authorities, BTW).

“H.G.H. has been used with great impunity since the 1970s,” Howman said. “It’s very available to athletes. They use it freely, and they usually don’t use things that can’t help them.”

1) Synthetic growth hormone was not developed until the 1980s.
2) Players use placebos like titanium necklaces, corked bats, and superstitions quite frequently.

My Radical HGH Policy Proposal

I’ve argued this here before many times, and I’ve written up my suggestion in the latest issue of ESPN Magazine.

Three years ago, Patriots safety Rodney Harrison was the first active player in the league to confess to using human growth hormone (HGH). Now, the suspension of British rugby player Terry Newton for the same thing has put the banned substance back in the crosshairs. The NFL’s response has been predictable: It wants to enact a new HGH blood-testing program — the same type of program that snagged Newton. The union’s response has been equally predictable: Not so fast; HGH blood testing is invasive and unreliable.

What neither party is proposing is the one solution that could eliminate the HGH scourge: Make it legal.

Channeling Robin Hanson on Growth Hormone Policy

As I’ve stated before, I think the illegality of growth hormone actually promotes its use in sports. Yes, outlawing such a product with testing may raise the price and thus reduce the quantity used; however, I don’t know that this is the best way to solve the problem of growth hormone use. And let me be clear about this, growth hormone is dangerous, and no one should ever try to use it to enhance performance even if it had ergogenic effects. If it was shown to be a performance-enhancer, I would support its ban.

What we have is a situation with asymmetric information. Medical researchers understand that growth hormone has no ergogenic benefits, players do not. Players who are seeking an edge need to acquire information as to what works, and they don’t get their information by searching PubMed. They may look to pushers, Google searches, or members of the media for information. These places are not ideal, and may be enough to provide some doubts about the drug’s efficacy as a performance enhancer; however, in my mind, the banning of a drug by anti-doping authorities sends a loud and incorrect signal that it works.

Last night, I was thinking about this and realized this argument fits with one that Robin Hanson made over a decade ago. Hanson came to George Mason just as I was finishing up my coursework, but I still remember his job-talk paper: Warning Labels as Cheap Talk: Why Regulators Ban Products. Here is the abstract.

The most frequently mentioned explanation for product bans is that regulators know more about product quality than consumers. A problem with this explanation, however, is that such regulators should prefer to just communicate the information implicit in their ban, perhaps via a “would have banned” label. We show, however, that since product labeling is cheap talk, any small market failure, such as a use-externality, will tempt regulators to lie about quality. If consumers suspect such lies, regulators can not communicate their ban information, and so will ban instead. We also show that when regulators expect market failures to lead to underconsumption of a product, and so would not ban it for informed consumers, regulators should want to commit to not banning this product for uninformed consumers.

The underlying focus of the paper looks at the opposite of what I’m discussing, but the underlying rationale for lifting a ban on a product is the same. Hanson is focusing on informed regulators choosing to ban unsafe products, because it is a signal to buyers about its safety. The ban allows experts to signal danger to the uninformed. In the case of growth hormone, the signal that consumers are receiving isn’t about safety. Users are well aware that growth hormone, anabolic steroids, and amphetamines are not safe, it’s just that athletes feel the safety sacrifice acceptable in light of the performance-enhancing gains. These substances are illegal under the law, the safety signal has been sent.

When it comes to anti-doping rules, banning a drug may signal that it is not safe, but it also sends the signal that it works. Players who are willing to make the health-for-income (or fame) tradeoff look to these lists for evidence of efficacy. Being undetectable is a huge plus. We need to stop the Larry Bigbie‘s of the world who just want to play baseball and will do anything to do it. Bigbie told George Mitchell that he didn’t even notice it working, but continued to use. Why? Because it was undetectable, and deep down he must have thought it helped. This undoubtedly is reinforced by the placebo effect, which has far more support as an ergogenic aid than growth hormone.

Therefore, I believe that legalizing growth hormone is needed to send the signal that it doesn’t work, largely to undo the widespread common belief that growth hormone does improve performance. Will some people try it because it’s legal? Absolutely, just like ballplayers who wear legal but benign magnetic necklaces. But think of the powerful effect it would have if MLB pulled growth hormone off its banned list. I can’t imagine a more powerful signal of a drug’s lack of potency as a performance enhancer. If we are going to be paternalists, let’s be effective paternalists. I know this is a radical solution, but I believe it is the best solution.

What A Waste

NY Times:

Major League Baseball, which had long been skeptical about a viable test for human growth hormone, now plans to implement blood testing for the substance in the minor leagues later this year, according to an official in baseball with direct knowledge of the matter.

Money down the toilet

This is a PR move.

Here is my solution, which I think will get growth hormone out of baseball and discourage people from using the drug by sending a credible signal that it doesn’t work: legalize it!.

Tiger Woods and HGH

Now that Tiger Woods’s doctor has been caught with growth hormone (more commonly known as HGH), I think it’s a good time for a reminder that the scientific consensus is that growth hormone does not improve athletic performance.

Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study at the Boston University of Medicine in his testimony before Congress.

“There is no credible scientific evidence that growth hormone substantively increases muscle strength or aerobic exercise capacity in normal individuals.”

You can read summaries of academic studies on the subject here and here.

If you think HGH is a PED, then you have no right to laugh at global warming skeptics or proponents of stadiums as engines of economic growth.



Three hours into a conference held Monday by Major League Baseball on human growth hormone, the real question of the day emerged when officials from the commissioner’s office and the players union wondered aloud about how effective the current blood test for human growth hormone was if no one had tested positive.

In the wake of last December’s Mitchell report, Commissioner Bud Selig said he would bring together leading experts in the field of performance-enhancing drugs to discuss the barriers of testing for human growth hormone.

HGH is not a performance-enhancing drug. Why is MLB doing this? The same reason I have to attend diversity training: to give the appearance of solving a problem that the public cares about. And in the case of growth hormone, public opinion is at odds with the scientific consensus.

No one would believe MLB if it stood up and stated what exercise physiologists have long known: that there are no ergogenic effects from using HGH. The response would be, “MLB is refusing to fight drugs!” They can’t win that battle any more than throwing a ball around circle to discuss racial feelings is going to cure Klansmen of racism. So, we live this bizarre fiction that HGH does work and that it is worth stopping, despite the fact that it runs counter to findings of scientific studies.

I guess I can’t blame MLB. It’s the cheapest way to fight a public relations problem—that’s all this is. And the sad part is that HGH’s prohibition signals to potential users that it works, and the drug has many bad side effects. If anything, the war on growth hormone will do more harm than good. As I have suggested before, the best solution is to legalize it.

Connection to Schafer?


A federal indictment unsealed Wednesday charged that unidentified agents for baseball players steered clients to a California physician linked in media reports to supplying Troy Glaus and Scott Schoeneweis with illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

No players or agents were mentioned by name in the 11-count indictment returned by a grand jury against Dr. Ramon Scruggs and two of his alleged associates at the New Hope Health Center in Costa Mesa, Calif….

The indictment, dated March 5, was unsealed in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif. It contains counts involving distribution of steroids, conspiracy, misbranding drugs, money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. The indictment covers activity from September 2000 to May 2003, and charges the defendants with illegally distributing drugs to baseball players, law-enforcement officers and others.

“It was a further part of the conspiracy that, on occasion, sports representation agents for professional baseball players referred their client-players to defendants Scruggs, Danto and MacPherson for the purpose of obtaining anabolic steroids and other drugs which those individuals knew to be banned by Major League Baseball and therefore unavailable to the players through lawful medical channels absent the illegal prescriptions provided by Scruggs,” the indictment said.

Jordan Schafer and Growth Hormone

I’m heading out the door to catch a plane to Memphis, so I don’t have much time. But, I want to briefly comment on the 50-game suspension of Braves prospect Jordan Schafer for violating MLB’s drug policy in regard to human growth hormone. I’ll offer a few thoughts.

— What the hell is this kid doing? Growth hormone doesn’t improve athletic performance, and it is very bad for you. It’s funny that I have yet to see any mainstream media bring this up, even though this fact was discussed in a widely-covered Congressional hearing two months ago. Maybe Jordan should be reading Sabernomics more and driving his Hummer less.

— When it comes to Schafer the baseball player, I’ve never seen what all the fuss is about. He could be good or drift off into nothing. His numbers aren’t that eye-popping and he is young. He is not good enough to garner the media attention he has been getting.

— The fact that no one will say how he was busted makes me think that he has been ratted out by a dealer. Maybe it’s someone we have already heard of, or it could be that this is just the first of several names to come.

UPDATE: Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus write the following.

Stories are beginning to come out of an investigation of Schafer and other Braves teammates that led to a confession from Schafer, but it sounds like this could get ugly, if these early stories are true.

Possibly, but keep in mind that early news reports are often tainted by incorrect rumors.

— What does the future hold for Schafer? This is going to be tough to shake, because the first time he doesn’t perform up to his hype—something that is likely to happen anyway—people are going to say, “see, he’s off the drugs.” He might even believe it. Damn placebos!

— Should Schafer be punished for using growth hormone, even though it lacks performance-enhancing benefits? Absolutely. The rules state you can’t do it. Corking a bat doesn’t increase the distance that you can hit a ball, but it is against the rules to do so. The rules must be enforced.


— Are you having trouble following your favorite Braves blogs from day to day? Check out The Tomahawk. It contains snippets and links to blog posts and Braves news.

— If you are looking for an easy way to link to all of my commentary on the lacking effectiveness of human growth hormone, I have now created a separate category for these posts.

— Charles at Cosellout uses the Sports Illustrated archives to track the magazine’s coverage of performance-enhancing drugs going back to 1969.

In the months to come we will be cataloguing their articles according to special categories as part of an SI Vault Series. Given the current climate on the subject, performance enhancing drugs (PEDS) seemed like a wonderful place to start. As accountability is being requested from players to managers to owners, there is one contingent that has answered to no one: The MEDIA. It is important for the public to know the same question asked of everyone else: “what did they know”? Given SI’s historical reputation America’s #1 magazine, it goes without saying that if Sports Illustrated printed it, then the rest of the sports media knew about it.

Michael Shermer has an article in Scientific American that discusses the prisoner’s dilemma game that motivates steroid use in all sports (thanks to Freakonomics and The Sports Economist). Readers of The Baseball Economist (or bargain hardback) will recall the direct application of this game to baseball in Chapter 9 (The Steroids Game). To end doping in sports Shermer states that any solution must correct the incentives that lead players to use.

To end doping in sports, the doping game must be restructured so that competing clean is in a Nash equilibrium. That is, the governing bodies of each sport must change the payoff values of the expected outcomes identified in the game matrix. First, when other players are playing by the rules, the payoff for doing likewise must be greater than the payoff for cheating. Second, and perhaps more important, even when other players are cheating, the payoff for playing fair must be greater than the payoff for cheating. Players must not feel like suckers for following the rules.

I agree; and here is my solution for changing the payoffs in the New York Times.

In an effort to clean up the game, it is tempting to suggest the standard solutions that strengthen old rules and increase monitoring and punishments. The problem is that the scofflaws are always one step ahead of the police. We need a deterrence system that uses incentives to limit drug use.

Baseball should stop punishing steroid users with suspensions and small fines. Instead, the sport needs a system of significant fines and bonuses. The revenues generated by cheaters under the new fine-and-bonus system would be distributed to the players who passed their tests. In addition to punishing players who cheat, this system would have the advantages of rewarding players who stayed clean and of encouraging players to police each other. Players would continue to play while being punished, so that fans did not suffer for player sins.

More here. Steven Levitt favors a proposal that stores blood samples over a long period of time. I don’t think it is possible in baseball given the fear of tampering and alternate uses. The players will never allow this, and I don’t blame them for their opposition. In a world where I don’t blindly trust my mechanic, why would I trust a lab holding a blood sample that could ruin my livelihood?

More on Human Growth Hormone

Headline: Growth hormone doesn’t boost athletic abilities: HGH may actually impair performance, review of studies finds

While growth hormone adds some muscle, it doesn’t appear to improve strength or exercise capacity, according to a review of studies that tested the hormone in mostly athletic young men.

“It doesn’t look like it helps and there’s a hint of evidence it may worsen athletic performance,” said Dr. Hau Liu, of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, Calif., who was lead author of the review.

Of course, this doesn’t stop the AP reporter from offering several qualifiers.

But the new research has some limitations and sheds no light on long-term use of HGH. The scientists note their analysis included few studies that measured performance. The tests also probably don’t reflect the dose and frequency practiced by athletes illegally using the hormone. Experiments like that aren’t likely to be conducted.

“It’s dangerous, unethical and it’s never going to be done,” said Dr. Gary I. Wadler, a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency and a spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine.

Consequently, those in the field have to depend on such reviews or “what we hear on the ground,” he added.

You know, I don’t recall the media being so vigorous on catching up on the science when all of the stories were reporting on growth hormone as a performance-enhancer.

There is no doubt that the perfect study on the subject has yet to be done, nor will it ever be done. But, the studies that have been done lead me to believe that were such a study to be done I would expect it to find minimal ergogenic effects. It’s not just that some empirical studies have been done on strength, but that when the muscles themselves are studied, they are developing differently from normal muscle. Thus, when we hypothesize about larger doses, I think the current studies give us a good idea about would occur.

The problem going with WADA scientist Gary Wadler hears “on the ground” is that in uncontrolled experiments, the placebo effect rears its head.