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THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Mar 03, 2006 - 01:00 AM
by Edward Epstein, Carla Marinucci
Governor's ties to fitness lobbying group weigh heavy;
Conflict-of-interest issue hangs over Ohio muscle showMany exhibitors at this weekend's Arnold Classic, the vast annual fitness, sports and pro bodybuilding show in Columbus, Ohio, named for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, are makers of muscle-building supplements who -- with the governor's imprimatur -- are lobbying against efforts to increase federal regulation of their products.
The situation raises anew whether Schwarzenegger's continuing association with pro bodybuilding -- a sport where the use of steroids and other illegal muscle-building drugs is endemic -- is sending a mixed message from a governor who says he supports healthy lifestyles and opposes illegal drug use in sports.
With the governor in attendance, executives of many supplement companies met behind closed doors at last March's Arnold Classic to form the Sports and Fitness Supplements Association, a new industry lobbying group.
Some in the new group denounced the 2004 federal law that outlawed the muscle-building substance androstenedione, which former A's slugger Mark McGwire used to help fuel his home run record in 1998, and the designer steroid that was at the center of the BALCO scandal. Others decried what they called a media-created hysteria over steroid use in sports that they say has tarred legal supplements.
The association bitterly opposes the Food and Drug Administration's 2003 decision to ban ephedra, the popular fat burner that had been linked to serious side effects, including deaths. And the lobbying group said it suspects there are moves afoot to ban DHEA, a natural steroid hormone widely marketed as a weight-loss supplement.
Such positions place the corporate members of the new Sports and Fitness Supplement Association outside the mainstream of the multibillion-dollar supplement industry and put them squarely in opposition to Congress.
State Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, who backs more regulation for supplements, said the governor's links with the lobbying group -- and his starring role at events this weekend that help promote such products -- suggest his priorities lie with manufacturers and lobbyists, not with consumers.
"It's pretty clear that the industry made him,'' she said. "He's loyal to it, and he'll continue to do everything he can to support it."
Asked this week during a visit to Washington, D.C., if he agrees with the new lobbying group that the supplement industry is under siege, Schwarzenegger said, "It was last year. I don't know if it still is. I'll find out this weekend when I'm in Columbus."
His spokeswoman, Margita Thompson, defended Schwarzenegger's association with the industry and said he has signed two bills that have curbed the use of controversial supplements.
The first, in 2004, banned androstenedione and DHEA for those under age 18. The second, which came after he vetoed a tougher version of legislation sponsored by Speier, cracked down on teenagers' use of steroids and other supplements.
"I know the governor supports the use of most supplements and vitamins that are safe. But there needs to be differentiation between supplements that are harmful and those that aren't," Thompson said.
Doug Heller of ArnoldWatch -- a watchdog effort of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights -- said the governor's support for the association last year was disturbing enough. But his activities this coming weekend, a year after the governor declared he had cut financial ties to the Arnold Classic, pose a "lingering question: Is Arnold still working for the muscle industry?"
Larry Noble, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Responsible Politics, said the governor's ties with the fitness supplement industry are "an area where he seems to have a blind spot. He just doesn't get it."
"His involvement with a lobbying group was wrong," Noble said. "He will be the subject of some of that lobbying, and therefore it is very unusual -- and creates real conflict problems -- when he's involved in setting up the group that will lobby him.''
The new association's efforts point up the symbiotic relationship between their industry and the bodybuilding magazines and competitions linked so closely to the governor, a former Mr. Olympia bodybuilding champ. Without the advertising and sponsorship revenues from the supplement makers -- whose products are largely free of federal regulation -- the bodybuilding industry would go belly up.
The new organization was spearheaded by Schwarzenegger's former bosses at American Media, the publishers of "Flex'' and "Muscle and Fitness," two magazines where the governor served as titular editor under a five-year arrangement that was to bring him $8 million. The governor ended the deal last summer amid intense criticism that his lucrative job posed a conflict of interest.
Schwarzenegger has also ended his co-ownership of the Arnold Classic, which he and a partner created in 1989 to showcase pro bodybuilding, the sport that helped Schwarzenegger become a movie star. The contest has since grown into a three-day festival.
The event comes during a critical time for the governor, who is emersed in negotiations with lawmakers over his plans to ask voters to approve billions of dollars in borrowing to help fund a huge public works improvement program.
The governor's decision to attend the bodybuilding event drew some criticism, but Schwarzenegger told reporters Thursday that he would pass up the trip if he was needed in Sacramento.
Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, said a breakthrough isn't near and he's unlikely to ask Schwarzenegger to stay in town.
Even though he last competed professionally in 1980, Schwarzenegger remains the muscle industry's foremost figure.
Though he has severed financial ties with the magazines, the governor remains very much a presence in the publications, where almost all the advertisers are supplement companies.
Phone calls to Peter McGough, the association's chairman who is also group editorial director of "Flex" and "Muscle and Fitness," to get comment on the extent of Schwarzenegger's current ties to the magazines or the association were not returned.
The Sports and Fitness Supplement Association, which charges companies $10,000 to buy a membership, says it "exists because the climate in Washington is more threatening to our industry now than at any other point in history," as its Web site puts it.
One of the group's current focuses is adverse incident reporting legislation, whose chief proponents in Congress include Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego. Currently, makers of over-the-counter supplements don't have to prove their products' safety before selling them to consumers. The proposed legislation says makers would have to provide the Food and Drug Administration all reports from consumers about health problems that might be linked to their products.
Under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, the FDA's hands are largely tied in regulating the supplement, vitamin and herbal products industry.
"There are a few bad apples in the industry. ... Some don't even know what's in their products," said Aaron Hunter, a spokesman for Davis. "Her bill would weed out those (bad) apples."
The supplement association fears the new legislation could require makers to get federal pre-approval for products, which could take years, sharply increase costs and put to the test the industry's claims for product effectiveness.
"The stakes could not be higher -- if our efforts fail, pre-market approval for sports and fitness supplements is all but certain," the association says. "As you know, this would be the death knell for our industry."
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