The sale of anabolic steroids over the internet should be banned to deter boys as young as 12 from becoming obsessed by the bulge of their muscles, the Government's drugs advisers said yesterday.
The growing misuse of the drugs by people seeking to bulk up their bodies was a "worrying development" which carried "significant risks", the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) said. But it rejected demands that criminal sanctions should be applied to users of the drugs in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics. Prosecution is currently limited to dealers, traffickers and manufacturers who profit from the trade in anabolic steroids, and the ACMD said users should continue to be dealt with through education and medical care, not the courts.
An estimated 14,500 schoolchildren aged 11 to 15 used anabolic steroids in the past year, the ACMD said. Among adults, there were 50,000 users aged 16 to 59, according to the British Crime Survey. Most users are in their twenties, and men outnumber women by 10 to one.
Anabolic steroids contain the male hormone testosterone, providing a chemical shortcut to strength and endurance, and are favoured by sprinters and weightlifters for whom raw power is key to winning. But they can also damage the heart, cause breast enlargement and shrinking of the testicles.
Dr James Brown, founder of the Association of Doctors in Sport, said: "Go into any gym which is predominantly focused on weightlifting and you will find someone who knows about anabolic steroids. Body image is driving this – the pressure on young people to look good and impress the opposite sex is immense. Everybody has to have a six-pack."
But the dangers of the drugs were not appreciated by adolescents after a quick fix. "I have a 45-year-old patient who was an anabolic steroid user and who now has osteoporosis [thinning of the bones]. Another patient suffered a personality change. Anything that encourages people to take responsibility for what they are putting into themselves is important."
Herbal supplements sold as performance enhancers contained testosterone-like substances which mimicked the action of anabolic steroids and could carry the same risks, he said. "The manufacturers are not regulated, so no one knows what is in them. They are very easy to get hold of," he said.
Robert Dawson, a GP in Tyne and Wear, who has run a clinic for anabolic steroid users for 16 years, said: "It is right that the advisory council has not bowed to pressure to criminalise users which would drive the problem underground. Instead, it has said people misguided enough to use the drugs should not be prosecuted but guided to medical care, where they can be advised why they don't need them and informed about the potential harms."
The ACMD report says the use of anabolic steroids by adolescents "potentially disrupts the normal pattern of growth and maturation", and that there are additional risks from sharing injecting equipment, such as hepatitis B and C and similar blood-borne viruses. But because abuse of anabolic steroids is not linked with crime as other drug abuse is, it does not receive the same attention.
A clinic for anabolic steroid users was run in Soho, central London, by the charity Turning Point. Called Smart Muscle, it had 270 clients but was closed earlier this year due to a lack of funds. A spokesperson for the charity said it had a lower priority since "steroid users are not seen as problematic because they don't commit crimes".
Professor Les Iversen, ACMD chairman, said: "The misuse and rising prevalence of anabolic steroids is a worrying development. More needs to be done to tackle the supply of anabolic steroids and to educate people of the potential dangers."
Expert's view: 'There is a crisis of the male ego and of the male image'
The Tyne and Wear GP has run a clinic for anabolic steroid users for 16 years which has supported 1,000 patients.
He said: "There is a crisis of the male ego and a crisis of the male image. Some say bodybuilding is reverse anorexia – muscle-bound men and women who think they look puny suffer from the same delusion as snake-hipped adolescent girls who think they look fat. And young people have the impression that there is a fast track to anything they want, including the body beautiful."
Most users inject the drug because it can be more damaging to the liver when taken orally. Dr Dawson, pictured, said: "We have found 43 per cent of people accessing needle exchange schemes are anabolic steroid users, not heroin users. You will find the same in most needle exchange schemes round the country. Sometimes you have one person collecting for friends and sometimes for a whole gym. They don't know what they are injecting or the harm that it can cause."