- GEN - Steroid use by 10th graders hits new high

 Thursday, December 21
Steroid use nearly doubles in four years
 By Tom Farrey

A nationwide survey shows that use of anabolic steroids among 10th graders rose sharply this year for the second consecutive year, provoking renewed concerns that the habits of professional and other elite athletes are driving the record-level usage rates among youth.

Steroid users in each grade, by percentage
Year 8th 10th 12th
1991 1.9 1.8 2.1
1992 1.7 1.7 2.1
1993 1.6 1.7 2.1
1994 2.0 1.8 2.4
1995 2.0 2.0 2.3
1996 1.8 1.8 1.9
1997 1.8 2.0 2.4
1998 2.3 2.0 2.7
1999 2.7 2.7 2.9
2000 3.0 3.5 2.5
Source: 2000 Monitoring the Future survey, National Institute on Drug Abuse

In the annual Monitoring the Future survey of youth released Thursday by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 3.5 percent of 10th graders said they had used steroids -- up from 2.7 percent last year and 1.8 percent in the 1996 survey.

That means steroid use among that age group has nearly doubled in four years.

"That's quite significant," said Alan Leschner, NIDA director. "It's hard to know what to attribute the rise to. But the thing we always worry about is the glorification of a drug, and we're hearing of athletes using steroids with impunity."

One athlete in particular bears responsibility for the upward spike, said Rob Houseman, assistant director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

"I don't want to pick on anybody but when Mark McGwire was found to be using andro, bam, that sent a message," Houseman said.

McGwire admitted to using androstenedione, a testosterone precursor sold over the counter in the United States, during 1998 when he set the record for home runs in a single season. That is about the time usage rates among youth began spiking upward after stablizing at about 2 percent for the age groups surveyed in the Monitoring the Future study.

Androstenedione, although marketed by companies selling it as a muscle-building steroid substitute, is not regarded by the U.S. government as an anabolic steroid. But experts on athletes' use of performance-enhancing drugs said that such legal supplements may be serving as gateway substances for young athletes to try the more powerful, illegal steroids.

"I've interviewed thousands of athletes about their drug use and I can't think of one who went straight to the hard (steroids)," said Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor and author of several books on steroids and athletes. "It always starts with the supplements."

Top states: boys who use steroids
State Pct.
Louisiana 8.4
Tennessee 8.1
Maine 7.9
New Mexico 7.2
Virginia 7.0
W. Virginia 7.0
Arkansas 6.9
Kentucky 6.9
Florida 6.8
Source: 1999 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Study, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Said Houseman, "These substances have a (psychologically) addictive quality to them. Kids started doing supplements a few years ago and now they've graduated. They peaked out at 200 pounds on the bench press by using supplements and now they want to be at 250."

The Monitoring the Future survey also found that steroid use among eighth graders rose to 3 percent, and that usage rates among 12th grades fell to 2.5 percent. But Leschner said that unlike the data for 10th graders, those changes from last year are not dramatic enough to be statistically significant because of the margin of error in the survey.

Still, the continued rise in use by eighth graders concerns experts. Usage rates rose for the third straight year, from 1.8 percent in 1997. More eighth graders now report using steroids than 12th graders, an event of particular concern because the younger users are more susceptible to damaging their bodies, Yesalis said.

Many of the negative short-term effects of steroids are reversible in adults once they stop taking the drugs, medical experts say. But that's not necessarily the case with adolescent boys and girls because of their sensitive hormonal states.

"There's the potential for changing the growth plates of their long bones," Yesalis said. "So while God may have scheduled you to become 6-foot-3, you instead could end up being a permanently muscular 5-5."

In its announcement Thursday, NIDA provided only percentage rates of usage among students, not total estimated users. But the figures suggest that at least 500,000 high school and middle school students across the country have used steroids.

Boys continue to use steroids more than girls, other surveys suggest. But usage rates are growing among girls, 2.2 percent of whom said they used the drugs in 1999, up from 1.2 percent in 1991, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance study conducted by the Centers for Diseases Control.

Girls who take large doses of the steroids face their own unique set of risks, including permanent sterilization and masculinization, such as facial hair, Yesalis said.

The rise in steroid use comes at a time when use of other recreational drugs by teenagers has stablized or declined, according to the Monitoring the Future survey. One of the few recreational drugs for which there was an increase in the past year was heroin, yet only about two-thirds as many students say they have used heroin compared to steroids. series
The renewed popularity of steroids goes well beyond the behavior of elite athletes. In a four-part series this week,'s Tom Farrey explores the various reasons why America lost the war on steroids that was declared a more than a decade ago by government and various sports organizations.

Houseman does not place all the blame on elite athletes for stimulating use of steroids.

"We live in an era in which our society believes in better living through modern chemistry," he said. "If you have a problem speaking before crowds, we have a pill for that. If students need to stay up all night and study for a test, they'll chop up ritalin and share it. If someone wants to perform better on the field, we've got a shot for that.

"What we're dealing with here is culturally beneficial deviance. This is different than traditional drug use. Unlike the kids who are overweight or having problems with their parents, the kids who take steroids are not trying to self-medicate their problems away. These kids only want to do better on the field."

Steroid use has also grown because of the failure of sports organizations to educate coaches and athletes on the dangers of steroids, Houseman said. Among high school seniors, those who perceived steroid use as harmful decreased from 62.1 percent in 1999 to 57.9 percent in 2000, the second year of substantial decline.

Still, elite athletes need to set better examples for kids because they drive demand for steroids at grassroot levels, Yesalis said. After breaking the home-run record, McGwire announced that he would no longer use andro. But by then it was already well-known that he had used, and perhaps benefitted, from the substance.

"Mark McGwire seems like a really nice guy," Yesalis said. "But did he fail as a role model in this instance? Yeah."

Tom Farrey is a Senior Writer for He can be reached at

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