250,000 Teenagers Have Used Steroids, Number May Be Growing, Studies Find

By Ellen Flax — September 19, 1990 3 min read

Washington--More than 250,000 adolescents have used steroids illegally and the number who use the potentially dangerous substances may be growing, two reports released by the Health and Human Services Department conclude.

The studies found that parents, coaches, and school officials may be subtly condoning steroid use by teenagers and called for a national education strategy to combat their use.

The studies, based on extensive interviews with 72 current or former steroid users under age 25, found that most began using steroids by age 16 in order to look better or to do better at sports.

Steroids pose a “unique substance-abuse problem,” the studies found, because most users are “highly motivated people who are trying to improve themselves or to achieve a positive goal.”

In a written response to the reports, Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan announced the formation of a task force to examine ways to combat steroid abuse. He also noted that the Food and Drug Administration has sent information about steroids to all schools as part of a broad educational campaign that targets young athletes and their coaches.

Adolescent users, the reports said, tend to overlook the fact that the use of steroids without a prescription is illegal. Since the 1950’s, professional athletes have used anabolic steroids, which are closely related to the male sex hormone testosterone, to help build muscle and reduce their training time. In recent years, steroid use has spread to the college and high-school levels.

At the same time, researchers have discovered that serious health risks can be associated with steroid use. Although there is no scientific consensus about the effects of steroids, researchers believe that heart disease, sexual and reproductive disorders, liver problems, stunted growth, and overly aggressive behavior may be associated with their use. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1988.)

Despite these potentially harmful side effects, the popularity of steroids appears to be growing, the reports by the hhs inspector general’s office conclude. About 262,000 high-school students, or about 3 percent of all students, have used steroids illegally, the reports said. The vast majority of these students are male, and virtually all of the current or former users interviewed were in a competitive sport or weight-training program at the time they started using steroids.

But these figures, based on data collected by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, may be understating the problem, the reports suggest.

About two-thirds of the 30 steroid experts interviewed for the reports, and virtually all of the current or former users, said steroid use was increasing. And a recent study of high-school football players in Oregon cited in the reports found that usage rates tripled, from 1.1 percent to 3.8 percent, between 1987 and 1989.

The reports suggested that parents and school personnel may be subtly influencing students to use steroids--or are ignoring evidence that they are being used.

More than half of the current or former steroid users interviewed said they believed that their parents probably knew they were steroid users, the reports say. And more than two-thirds of the the current or former users said they did not believe that their coaches really disapproved of steroid use.

“Whether intentional or not, parents and coaches place great pressure on young people to compete and win, while sending a mixed message of what are acceptable ways to accomplish that goal,” one of the reports maintains. “At other times the message is clear that using steroids to enhance performance is acceptable when our society praises winning, accords athletes special treatment, and overlooks their transgressions.”

Robert E. Morris, executive director of the National High School Athletic Coaches Association and one of the experts interviewed for the studies, said he doubted that coaches would encourage students to use steroids. But coaches may not always explicitly tell students not to use them, he said.

“You’re not going to make a strong anti-steroid statement if you don’t believe they are in your program,” Mr. Morris said.

“I think we are going to have to do a better job of educating at the high-school level,” said Richard Stickle, another expert interviewed for the studies and the executive director of target, a substance-abuse program run by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 1990 edition of Education Week as 250,000 Teenagers Have Used Steroids, Number May Be Growing, Studies Find