SINGAPORE: While selling anabolic steroids in Singapore without a licence is illegal, evidence obtained by Channel NewsAsia and testimony from fitness industry participants suggest that it is a well-established, lucrative business.
The ease of obtaining steroids on the black market has been cited by fitness experts as one reason why more young bodybuilders are using the performance-enhancing drugs.
James*, who has been in the local fitness scene for about 20 years, handed over an Excel spreadsheet from a steroid distributor, which detailed the wholesale prices of the various products on offer, as well as the amount the distributor charges sub-distributors, runners and consumers.
He also provided what he said was the price list of distributor "Shad", one of the suspected main steroid suppliers in Singapore.
"Shad is a big runner. He invests about S$10,000 monthly in fresh stocks," said James.
"(Dealers) always buy in bulk. The reason they do this is to get cheaper prices from manufacturers."
As an active bodybuilder, fitness trainer Zack* is also familiar with the steroid black market in Singapore. Now in his 30s, he is a former Team Singapore sportsman.
However, unlike James, Zack admits to being a buyer of a cocktail of steroids that supplements his gym training and diet. He described how some local steroid dealers operate in semi-hiding after the authorities were tipped off about their activities.
“There are distributors that I know who now live at their girlfriend’s apartment because they are wanted by the authorities. They occasionally go back to their parents’ home just to collect their mail as they’re ... suspected (for) dealing in steroids,” said Zack, who works in a mega-gym.
The authorities actively pursue black market dealers.
Responding to an email query, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) told Channel NewsAsia that it investigated a total of 23 cases involving the illegal sale of performance enhancing drugs that contain anabolic steroids from 2014 to 2016.
It has also received information this year about black market steroids, with an email seen by Channel NewsAsia dated March 2017 giving the HSA information about a suspected dealer.
Nonetheless, fitness insiders that Channel NewsAsia spoke to described a situation where fear of getting caught appears to be no issue for some illegal dealers.
“Steroid runners are so prevalent and open nowadays that if you’re to step into a gym - especially smaller gyms and 24-hour gyms - there are runners who would approach you directly and ask you what (steroid) you’re using. They’d then do their sales transaction there and then,” said Zack, a former national athlete.
Such deals come even though local gyms are trying to clamp down on what is happening.
A check with two gym managers from Anytime Fitness confirmed that the company had sacked an employee for selling steroids. The 24-hour gym chain also has signage saying that it has banned steroid use for its gym-goers.
Meanwhile, gym supervisor Muhammad Asrani said that he is aware that some of his gym-goers sell steroids. "Some of them even openly train with singlets bearing the Meditech (a steroid manufacturer) logo," said Asrani, who works at GYMMBOXX Bedok.
"But frankly, what they do outside of the gym is none of my business," said Asrani. "However, if I find out that any of my staff is involved in the illegal selling of these substances in our premises, I won't hesitate to take action.
"These things not only goes against company policy, but also my internal policy, as their supervisor here at the Bedok outlet," he added.
UNLICENSED STEROID SALES CAN LEAD TO JAIL TIME
While trading in steroids is apparently not uncommon, it is also illegal unless the seller has a licence.
Rajah and Tann lawyer Lau Kok Keng spelled out how such traders are falling foul of the law in Singapore: “Possessing for sale, and selling to the public of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) which are controlled drugs, would amount to drug trafficking, which is an offence under section 5 of the Misuse of Drugs Act.”
Those convicted under this section of the act face a fine of up to S$10,000, a jail term of up to three years, or both.
“For some PEDs which are not controlled drugs, they could also be classified as a therapeutic product, a health product or a poison and hence fall under the purview of the Health Products Act, the Medicines Act, the Poisons Act and the Health Sciences Authority,” added Mr Lau.
He added: “This would depend on whether the PEDs have been registered and approved for sale by the HSA, and whether the dealer has been licensed to sell these PEDs. If not, the dealers would be liable for offences under these respective statutes.”
The HSA pointed out that sale or supply of prescription-only medicines - which includes anabolic steroids - without a licence is illegal.
Anyone convicted of the illegal sale of these medicines faces a penalty fine of up to S$50,000 and/or imprisonment for a period of up to two years under the Health Products Act.
The risk of getting into trouble with the authorities has resulted in one steroid distributor rethinking its business.
SG Bodybuilding Shop, which has an active website, told Channel NewsAsia what prompted a change in strategy: “For the kind of money, it's not worth the risk.”
"We as a group have been gym buddies for close to 20 years, starting out in Malaysia before some of us went over to Singapore to pursue careers in the fitness/bodybuilding industry in the early 2000s,” a spokesperson said in an email response to Channel NewsAsia’s questions.
Citing minimal online sales, the site is shutting down its web-based arm to focus on its offline Business-to-Customer (B2C) operations. “We are in the midst of shutting down the business/website as we do not want to land ourselves in trouble. We have already re-routed traffic to another website.”
Nonetheless, the spokesperson insisted that their products are safe. “We provide guidance and dosage recommendations which is tried and tested, and also warn all users about overdosing. Health effects of overdosing from these supplements is not any different from overdosing on off-the-shelf medicines/supplements.
"We are regular users of the products that we sell. We will still continue to use the products ourselves, even after our business has ceased entirely,” the spokesperson added.
ZERO -TOLERANCE POLICIES
A further barrier for illegal steroid sellers is the zero-tolerance approach of many local gyms.
In an email statement to Channel NewsAsia, Head of Fitness at Fitness First Singapore, Percy Reynolds said: “Fitness First does not condone the use of steroids. As a leading premium fitness brand with 17 clubs in Singapore, Fitness First has a strict no-tolerance policy towards our employees and our members who consume or sell any kind of performance enhancing drug.”
“Fitness First is committed to taking immediate action should such incidents arise to protect the wellbeing of our members and employees.”
When contacted, 24-hour gym chain GYMMBOXX said in a statement: “We understand that there used to be similar incidents happening at GYMMBOXX clubs. However, we have since taken necessary actions by disallowing entry for such users.”
“We do not condone sales of steroids at any GYMMBOXX clubs. We will not hesitate to dismiss any GYMMBOXX employees if we were to find them peddling PEDs to their clients or any users.”
It is this attitude which gives some encouragement to James - also a former Team Singapore sportsman - who is disturbed at how widespread the use of steroids has become.
“I was shocked many years back when people started approaching me to sell me these substances for my clients. During my time, it was very hard to obtain these kinds of steroids.”
He added that he is afraid that his son might someday make the wrong choice and turn to unlicensed substances to boost his muscles.
“My main worry is that I hope he doesn’t get influenced to use steroids from unsavory characters. He was asking me why his friend had big muscles despite training together.
“When I had a look at his friend’s picture on Facebook, he had all the tell-tale signs of steroid abuse.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the sources.
Members of the public who have any information on the sale of illegal products can contact HSA's Enforcement Branch at 6866-3485 during office hours (Monday to Friday) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.