Steroid abuse by children soars to crisis level

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The Independent Online
TIM REID

A dramatic rise in the number of children using anabolic steroids in an attempt to look like their muscle-bound television heroes has prompted the Sports Council to launch a national anti-drugs campaign.

Boys and girls as young as 12 are taking massive quantities of steroids, which can cause psychotic behaviour, stunted growth and heart failure, spurred on by the image of strongmen and women in television programmes and advertising, the council said this week.

Michele Verroken, the council's head of doping control, believes children are buying the drugs in schools and gyms. Calls from worried parents, teachers and school sports coaches have become so regular that a "preventive campaign'' was vital before steroid abuse became uncontrollable. The council begins a survey this month to discover the extent of the problem.

"The Department of Health is not doing enough,'' said Ms Verroken. "We want to see a consistent message preventing steroid use and promote a campaign saying there are other acceptable shapes than the triangular beach body. Otherwise things will get worse."

The move follows a meeting of the Council of Europe, at Strasbourg in June, when representatives from 38 countries, including Ms Verroken, discussed ways of fighting teenage steroid abuse, which is spreading rapidly throughout Europe.

David Cameron, who runs the Nottingham-based charity Drugs Dependants Anonymous, says more than 400 teenage steroid users, some as young as 12, have attended his needle exchange in the past 22 months. But that, he says, is "just the tip of the iceberg".

"When I go lecturing in schools, the buzzword now is steroids. Kids are getting into them because they want to look like the stars in Gladiators and the World Wrestling Federation. They think steroids are the easy answer.'' Shadow, one of the stars of the ITV show Gladiators, was sacked for taking steroids earlier this year.

One 15-year-old, from Sheffield, said he had been taking steroids for two years. He had bought them at a nearby gym. A one-month ''course" costs him pounds 20. ''A lot of us are taking them,'' he said. ''I know guys of 11 doing them. There's nothing wrong with wanting to look good.''

Dr Huw Perry, a bodybuilder who has studied steroid abuse for the West Glamorgan Health Authority, said 40 per cent of addicts at South Wales needle exchanges were now steroid users and addicts were getting younger.

Anabolic steroids are used to treat cancer and help patients after major surgery. But they have long been used by athletes who want to improve their strength and stamina. While it is illegal to sell them,possession is not a criminal offence.

Many of the drugs mimic the effects of the male sex hormone testosterone, which enables users to train longer, recover quickly after injury and increase muscle bulk. They also prevent tiredness and increase self-confidence, creating a "feelgood" factor.

Mark Parsons, editor of Muscle News, started taking steroids when he was 15. He believes that they should be legalised. "If steroids are outlawed, youngsters are still going to take them. They need open information about the side-effects. They need expert help, just like cocaine and heroin addicts.''

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