As I’ve stated before, I think the illegality of growth hormone actually promotes its use in sports. Yes, outlawing such a product with testing may raise the price and thus reduce the quantity used; however, I don’t know that this is the best way to solve the problem of growth hormone use. And let me be clear about this, growth hormone is dangerous, and no one should ever try to use it to enhance performance even if it had ergogenic effects. If it was shown to be a performance-enhancer, I would support its ban.
What we have is a situation with asymmetric information. Medical researchers understand that growth hormone has no ergogenic benefits, players do not. Players who are seeking an edge need to acquire information as to what works, and they don’t get their information by searching PubMed. They may look to pushers, Google searches, or members of the media for information. These places are not ideal, and may be enough to provide some doubts about the drug’s efficacy as a performance enhancer; however, in my mind, the banning of a drug by anti-doping authorities sends a loud and incorrect signal that it works.
Last night, I was thinking about this and realized this argument fits with one that Robin Hanson made over a decade ago. Hanson came to George Mason just as I was finishing up my coursework, but I still remember his job-talk paper: Warning Labels as Cheap Talk: Why Regulators Ban Products. Here is the abstract.
The most frequently mentioned explanation for product bans is that regulators know more about product quality than consumers. A problem with this explanation, however, is that such regulators should prefer to just communicate the information implicit in their ban, perhaps via a “would have banned” label. We show, however, that since product labeling is cheap talk, any small market failure, such as a use-externality, will tempt regulators to lie about quality. If consumers suspect such lies, regulators can not communicate their ban information, and so will ban instead. We also show that when regulators expect market failures to lead to underconsumption of a product, and so would not ban it for informed consumers, regulators should want to commit to not banning this product for uninformed consumers.
The underlying focus of the paper looks at the opposite of what I’m discussing, but the underlying rationale for lifting a ban on a product is the same. Hanson is focusing on informed regulators choosing to ban unsafe products, because it is a signal to buyers about its safety. The ban allows experts to signal danger to the uninformed. In the case of growth hormone, the signal that consumers are receiving isn’t about safety. Users are well aware that growth hormone, anabolic steroids, and amphetamines are not safe, it’s just that athletes feel the safety sacrifice acceptable in light of the performance-enhancing gains. These substances are illegal under the law, the safety signal has been sent.
When it comes to anti-doping rules, banning a drug may signal that it is not safe, but it also sends the signal that it works. Players who are willing to make the health-for-income (or fame) tradeoff look to these lists for evidence of efficacy. Being undetectable is a huge plus. We need to stop the Larry Bigbie‘s of the world who just want to play baseball and will do anything to do it. Bigbie told George Mitchell that he didn’t even notice it working, but continued to use. Why? Because it was undetectable, and deep down he must have thought it helped. This undoubtedly is reinforced by the placebo effect, which has far more support as an ergogenic aid than growth hormone.
Therefore, I believe that legalizing growth hormone is needed to send the signal that it doesn’t work, largely to undo the widespread common belief that growth hormone does improve performance. Will some people try it because it’s legal? Absolutely, just like ballplayers who wear legal but benign magnetic necklaces. But think of the powerful effect it would have if MLB pulled growth hormone off its banned list. I can’t imagine a more powerful signal of a drug’s lack of potency as a performance enhancer. If we are going to be paternalists, let’s be effective paternalists. I know this is a radical solution, but I believe it is the best solution.