AP IMPACT: Big Pharma cashes in on HGH abuse

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With illicit supplies crimped, many pharmacies stopped selling unauthorized HGH. But tens of thousands of adult abusers began buying pricey U.S.-approved HGH that remained available in abundant supply, the AP found in its analysis of sales data.

Thus, pushed by a powerful demand, sales of U.S.-approved brands have swelled far beyond expected levels for a drug approved in just a handful of rare conditions.

Dr. Robert Marcus, a retired hormone specialist who left HGH manufacturer Eli Lilly and Co. in 2008, said that company was bent on stopping foreign counterfeits, not on cutting off abusers. “That’s where their major level of frustration was _ pharmaceutical fraud _ rather than focusing on people who were using growth hormone illegitimately,” he said.

Dr. Jim Meehan, of Tulsa, Okla., who has used HGH to treat aging problems and sports injuries, said the federal clampdown “never seemed to affect my patients and their ability to get Omnitrope, Tev-Tropin” and other government-approved brands.

The big drug companies have applauded the foreign crackdown and urged the government to do even more to combat sales of fake or fraudulently labeled HGH. In 2004, Bruce Kuhlik, speaking for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, told a federal task force that unauthorized drug importation “is inherently unsafe” and industry representatives used Chinese HGH imports as their poster child.

In 2007, as the HGH embargo gained momentum, authorized makers picked up 41 percent more HGH orders, raising their annual total from 245,000 to 345,000, according to the analysis of the IMS Health data. Similarly, most of the drug’s sales boom happened in the first two years of the crackdown, with 46 percent inflation-adjusted growth in yearly sales to $1.1 billion.

Steve Kleppe, of Scottsdale, Ariz., a restaurant entrepreneur who has taken HGH for almost 15 years to keep feeling young, said he noticed a price jump of about 25 percent after the block on imports. He now buys HGH directly from a doctor at an annual cost of about $8,000 for himself and the same amount for his wife.

Despite higher prices, the business has expanded in recent years largely on the strength of sales to healthy adults who can afford to indulge their hope of retaining youthful vigor.

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GROWING OLD

Many older patients go for HGH treatment to scores of anti-aging practices and clinics heavily concentrated in retirement states like Florida, Nevada, Arizona and California.

These sites are affiliated with hundreds of doctors who are rarely endocrinologists. Instead, many tout certification by the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine, though the medical establishment does not recognize the group’s bona fides.

The clinics offer personalized programs of “age management” to business executives, affluent retirees, and other patients of means, sometimes coupled with the amenities of a vacation resort.

The clinics insist there are few, if any, side effects from HGH. Mainstream medical authorities say otherwise.

A 2007 review of 31 medical studies showed swelling in half of HGH patients, with joint pain or diabetes in more than a fifth. A French study of about 7,000 people who took HGH as children found a 30 percent higher risk of death from causes like bone tumors and stroke, stirring a health advisory from U.S. authorities.

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