COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Knowing the federal government does little to regulate the steroid-tainted, multibillion-dollar supplement industry, the leader of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency urged a group of attorneys general to take action on the state level.
USADA CEO Travis Tygart spoke at a conference of the country's attorneys general Thursday, urging them to use consumer protection laws in their states to help prevent tainted and steroid-related supplements from reaching the market.
"If consumers could run the land, I think federal regulations would change," Tygart said. "The political reality is that, unfortunately, we have to assume they're not going to change. But that doesn't deter you [states] from taking action."
Tygart said strong lobbying efforts from supplement manufacturers led to lax regulations that allow products on the market before they're tested for dangerous or illegal controlled substances. But they can only be removed if they're proven dangerous, which has been nearly impossible over the years.
He said ephedra is the only supplement that has been proven dangerous enough to take off the market in the last decade, and that came only after a number of high-profile deaths, including those of Vikings lineman Korey Stringer and Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler.
Meanwhile, Tygart cited scientific studies showing up to 25 percent of supplements made in America contained steroids and 11 percent contained stimulants.
Some steroid-like substances can be marketed as legal supplements because of a minor chemical change that has no significant effect on the way the drug works once it's ingested, he said.
Also speaking was Kicker Vencill, an elite-level swimmer who missed the 2004 Olympic trials after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs when he took a tainted multivitamin.
Vencill ended up winning damages through litigation against the supplement company, but it didn't overturn his suspension or save his chance at the Olympics.
"The supplement industry is like the wild, wild west out there," Vencill said. "There are no rules, they can do what they want. If you were trying to turn a quick buck and you didn't have any morals, why wouldn't you be out there doing that?"
For the states, however, this is a relatively new issue. If they make a move, they'll probably have to turn to consumer-protection statutes. They could also look at recovering expenses for government-paid health care costs for treatment of people who get sick from supplement use, much the way they did in lawsuits against tobacco companies.
Colorado attorney general John Suthers wants to study the issue more closely on the state level. He said a group of states working together could have an impact, but conceded there's only so much AGs offices can do, especially with budgets tight in tough financial times.
"We're a complaint-driven organization and I have to admit, we're not getting a high number of complaints at our office about mislabeled substances," he said. "Whether we can muster the will to do something about it, I don't know. But it's a serious issue and I think we've got to look at it."