The crackdown, which began in 2006, reduced the illegal flow of unregulated supplies from China, India and Mexico.
Since then, Big Pharma has been satisfying the steady desires of U.S. users and abusers, including many who take the drug in the false hope of delaying the effects of aging.
From 2005 to 2011, inflation-adjusted sales of HGH were up 69 percent, according to an AP analysis of pharmaceutical company data collected by the research firm IMS Health. Sales of the average prescription drug rose just 12 percent in that same period.
Unlike other prescription drugs, HGH may be prescribed only for specific uses. U.S. sales are limited by law to treat a rare growth defect in children and a handful of uncommon conditions like short bowel syndrome or Prader-Willi syndrome, a congenital disease that causes reduced muscle tone and a lack of hormones in sex glands.
The AP analysis, supplemented by interviews with experts, shows too many sales and too many prescriptions for the number of people known to suffer from those ailments. At least half of last year’s sales likely went to patients not legally allowed to get the drug. And U.S. pharmacies processed nearly double the expected number of prescriptions.
Peddled as an elixir of life capable of turning middle-aged bodies into lean machines, HGH – a synthesized form of the growth hormone made naturally by the human pituitary gland – winds up in the eager hands of affluent, aging users who hope to slow or even reverse the aging process.
Experts say these folks may be harmed by it. The supposed fountain-of-youth medicine can cause enlargement of breast tissue, carpal tunnel syndrome and swelling of hands and feet.
Years of raids, sports scandals and media attention haven’t stopped major drugmakers from selling a whopping $1.4 billion worth of HGH in the U.S. last year. That’s more than industry-wide annual gross sales for penicillin or prescription allergy medicine. Anti-aging HGH regimens vary greatly, with a yearly cost typically ranging from $6,000 to $12,000 for three to six self-injections per week.
First marketed in 1985 for children with stunted growth, HGH was soon misappropriated by adults intent on exploiting its modest muscle- and bone-building qualities. Congress limited HGH distribution to the handful of rare conditions in 1990.
Illicit HGH spread around the sports world in the 1990s, making deep inroads into bodybuilding, college athletics, and professional leagues from baseball to cycling.
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 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.
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 operations 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.
For proof that the drug works, marketers turn to images like the memorable one of pot-bellied septuagenarian Dr. Jeffry Life, supposedly transformed into a ripped hulk of himself by his own program available at the upscale Las Vegas-based Cenegenics Elite Health. (He declined to be interviewed.)
These promoters of HGH say there is a connection between the drop-off in growth hormone levels through adulthood and the physical decline that begins in late middle age. Replace the hormone, they say, and the aging process slows.
“It’s an easy ruse. People equate hormones with youth,” said Dr. Tom Perls, a leading industry critic who does aging research at Boston University. “It’s a marketing dream come true.”