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Guest article

Sports, doping and supplements: Where do authorities, clubs and leagues stand?

By Luca Bucchini PhD, MPH, managing director of Hylobates Consulting , 09-Mar-2017
Last updated on 09-Mar-2017 at 11:56 GMT2017-03-09T11:56:45Z

©iStock
©iStock

Everyone is against doping, but those at the heart of sports and athletics can do more, argues Luca Bucchini.

Everyone is against doping. Present and retired sportsmen and women often speak up against doping; all professional athletes are constantly reminded of their responsibility.

For their part, the media continue to raise the issue, and more importantly, NADO:s (National Anti-Doping Organizations) continue to fight their battles with conviction, often joined by the police, by prosecutors or by regulators.

Even the European Commission has been acting as decisively as it can, trying to put together a coherent strategy against doping.

And, most of the European sports nutrition industry is working hard (and well) to be responsible, by shunning ‘banned substances’ and subscribing to ever more sophisticated certification programs to avoid the inadvertent presence of doping agents.

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So, is it all well? Unfotunately not …

Two recent big disappointments are worth considering.

The first relates to the respected French risk assessment body, ANSES. In a recent assessment made available in both French and English , ANSES stated that DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) and PEA (phenylethylamine) are permitted in food supplements in the EU – even if the two are banned substances according to the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA).

Experts were surely quick to notice that the report listed as ’permitted’ other substances which, in reality, are banned under EU law (vanadium, evodiamine or raspberry ketones) and were quick to conclude that the report was very weak from a regulatory perspective.

However, the public is sure to have been confused – DHEA and PEA are banned substances for doping, but they are permitted in food supplements? And if they are not prohibited in supplements, are they ok to consume?

In reality, DHEA and PEA are not permitted in the EU; both have a pharmacological action, and products with the either substance are almost sure to be considered unauthorised medicines (and if not, novel food legislation would take care of them).

Obviously, ANSES did not consult regulators or experts, and did not consider implications for consumers and the less informed food business operators of inaccurate statements.

The ANSES report should have been withdrawn and re-written, but it is still online telling potential consumers  - including careless athletes – that DHEA and PEA may be unsafe, but are legally ok.

The second:A bigger disappointment is that major clubs, including well known football (soccer) clubs, and even sports leagues accept sponsorship from careless manufacturers or retailers.

E-commerce retailers may be huge, but continue to sell products with ‘banned substances’. Presumably because they don’t care, don’t check, or don’t understand the laws and the ethics.

It has been claimed that this is the case for F.C. Internazionale .

Unfortunately, even browsing major generalist e-commerce platforms, you are surprised to see  - despite what The Economist says is going to occur – products with banned substances.

This is striking. Identifying products with doping substances with automated searches would seem a no-brainer, which suggests no checks to implement the WADA list have been put in place.

 If you check responsible e-commerce operators, on the other hand, you will soon find that eliminating products with added banned substances is possible.

Why is this important?

Consumers assume a sponsor of their favorite team or league is both legal and safe.

Reactions of consumers are telling. First, people react with disbelief: a sponsor of a major sports club is assumed to be compliant with the law. Secondly, and more significantly, even if they accept the sponsor selling banned substances, they state that the substances can’t really be harmful, even if banned, and the ban is relevant for athletes only.

This is a key perception challenge for the industry.

Food versus OTC

Why do people jump when a pharmaceutical substance is found in a food, when medicines containing the identical substance are perhaps available over the counter (OTC)?

The simple reason is that foods, including sports nutrition products, need to be safe without second thoughts. There is a good reason for being proud of the fact that adverse effects of food supplements are dwarfed (or, better, mega-dwarfed) by the adverse effects of OTC drugs.

There is a regulatory and a public health reason for keeping drugs and foods separate, but there is also a strong business logic: consumers need to have absolute confidence in the harmless nature of food products.

If food supplements have the same safety issues of drugs, this paradigm falls apart.

Another effect of careless sponsorships is a creeping legitimisation of doping for the occasional sportsman.

Why not DHEA for the weekend warrior? Why not 7-keto? Why not DMAA? The magnitude of the change that legitimizing doping for those who are not pro could bring about is huge.

Serious health consequences from doping – as a police officer recently put it to me – used to be mostly a question for a small minority who would subject themselves to any degree of self-harm for achieving certain performance or aesthetic results.

That minority needed, and still needs, to be protected from themselves.

But if the problem comes to concern huge numbers of especially younger people who are primed to consider ‘banned substances’ an issue for professional athletes only, or to stay away from steroids only, then things start to look more complex.

So what should responsible clubs and federations do?

It is easy to imagine a few minimum requirements for accepting sponsorships from retailers of foods for sports people:

  • No products with voluntarily added banned substances, which requires checks on all product labels, automated checks on e-platforms, written guarantees from suppliers and immediate removal when the sponsored or anyone reports a product with a banned substance;
  • Products that (actually) comply with EU law and national legislation when applicable and products marketed in a specific MS;
  • A clear commitment against doping, including saying that doping, and banned substances, are not ok even for people who don’t do competitive sports;
  • Adequate contractual provisions so that the above can be enforced quickly, with economic or litigation concerns not being in the driver’s seat if a problem arises.

Millions of fans trust the clubs they support, and those clubs rely on the leagues they belong to.

It is only fair that those clubs and leagues, when accepting sponsorships, ensure that they do not inadvertently promote doping to their fan base. And, if they have made a mistake, they should correct it.