Pressure Builds on China Over Steroids

Workers make repairs at Green Leaf Pharmaceutical in Xianju after what was described as an April fire. The company used to sell stanozolol, a steroid, but not anymore, the workers said.
Workers make repairs at Green Leaf Pharmaceutical in Xianju after what was described as an April fire. The company used to sell stanozolol, a steroid, but not anymore, the workers said. (By Maureen Fan -- The Washington Post)
By Maureen Fan and Amy Shipley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

BEIJING -- In the fall, U.S. authorities announced a massive raid against underground suppliers of steroids, human growth hormone and other performance-enhancing drugs. Investigators had cast their net wide, arresting 124 people in 27 states.

But to determine the origin of the steroids, investigators had to look to only one place: China.

Since at least 2005, when a U.S.-led crackdown crippled Mexico's steroid industry, Chinese firms have been supplying the vast majority of the steroids sold over the Internet, according to U.S. law enforcement officials. Those steroids are used by a wide range of athletes, from amateur bodybuilders to top-tier professionals.

Now, under U.S. pressure and with the Olympic Games in Beijing only eight months away, Chinese authorities say they are scrutinizing the companies accused of exporting steroids and vowing to better police the trade. But interviews with steroid manufacturers, suppliers and government authorities highlighted the barriers to effectively containing the problem: Confusion over regulations reigns, and companies can manipulate the system.

The Washington Post obtained a list of 37 Chinese companies that American investigators identified as being involved in the illicit steroids trade. Many of the companies could not be reached. Of the firms that were contacted, 10 said they no longer sold steroids or no longer exported them. But four said they could sell the compounds. One company appeared to have shut down its operations in one province only to reopen in another.

Several companies expressed bafflement at the sudden scrutiny by the Chinese government, saying vague laws left unclear exactly what was illegal.

The steroids issue is particularly sensitive as China prepares to host its first Olympics. Chinese authorities are determined to use the Games as an opportunity to showcase their country as a modern state and are keen to prevent any potential embarrassments.

The Chinese Food and Drug Administration last month announced a five-agency investigation and a plan to "standardize" production and distribution of steroids. While the country's FDA has provided no further details and would not comment specifically on the Chinese companies that had been targeted, it has said the investigation is the first of its size and scope.

International law enforcement officials with knowledge of the earlier U.S. investigation are hopeful that the Chinese can curb the trade, but they are also skeptical, noting that they have had little communication with Beijing.

"The biggest question is sustainability. Is this going to last past the Olympics?" said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We need to see some action. They need to prove themselves. We're seeing inklings of progress, but in other respects we're seeing nothing."

There are some signs that the Chinese investigation is having effects, at least for now. In interviews, representatives of several Chinese steroid companies said the firms had been questioned by authorities and ordered to halt exports. The Web sites of 17 of the 37 companies targeted in the U.S. probe could not be viewed on a recent day.

Meanwhile, at a pharmaceutical industry conference in Shenzhen, China, in November, several companies known to have sold steroids were noticeably absent, attendees said. Other companies complained that the investigation had hurt business and said that they had turned to selling other products.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company