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Young Athletes Are Seeking Chemical Edge

Health: A growing number of such youths are turning to risky substances to better compete, and the average age is getting younger.


WASHINGTON — High school athletes are increasingly turning to drugs and other chemical aids to build leaner, stronger bodies, researchers say.

Studies find greater use of substances from legal but risky supplements to illegal steroid drugs.

"We have to pay attention to this in schools," said Timothy P. Condon, associate director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "If we see this continuing, we've got a big problem."

Among high school seniors, 3.7% have used steroids at some point in their lives, according to a 2001 survey done for the Department of Health and Human Services and funded by NIDA. In 2000, 2.5% reported steroid use.

The Monitoring the Future survey of drug use by 44,000 students at 424 schools across the nation also said that past-year steroid use by seniors rose to 2.4% from 1.7% in 2000. Disapproval of steroid use decreased among seniors from 88.8% in 2000 to 68.4% in 2001.

Past-year steroid use in the two years among eighth- and 10th-graders was fairly stable, at about 1.5% of eighth graders and more than 2% of 10th-graders, the report said.

Colleges are getting athletes who developed substance use habits in high schools, and high schools should be more active in preventing the habits from being formed, said Dr. Gary Green of UCLA.

Green examined data from questionnaires filled out in 2001 by 21,225 NCAA student athletes. He reported his findings at a Bethesda, Md., conference organized by the National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements and the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a supplement industry trade group.

About 42% of NCAA athletes who reported in 2001 that they use steroids had said they brought the habit with them from high school, the study said.

The survey is done every four years. When the question was asked in 1997, 25% said they were using steroids in high school. Reported steroid use in college was fairly stable at less than 1.5%.

A similar pattern was found in use of the supplement ephedrine. Among continued users, 58% said in 2001 they had used it in high school, compared with 34% in 1997. Ephedrine is an NCAA banned substance, although it is legal in the United States for sale in over-the-counter preparations. Ephedrine is taken for such purposes as weight loss, but it can lead to cardiac arrest or stroke.

"A lot of times, we inherit problems at the collegiate level," Green said. "By the time they get to the NCAA level, primary prevention is out the window."

HHS is encouraging high schools to adopt anti-drug campaigns for athletes. One such program is ATLAS (Athletes Training and Learning to Avoid Steroids), developed through a NIDA grant. The program teaches teenage boys the dangers of drugs and the risks in some supplements, and shows them how to teach their fellow athletes to get results without supplements.

A similar program, ATHENA (Athletes Targeting Healthy Exercise and Nutrition Alternatives) focuses on girls, especially on eating disorders.

Teens who turn to chemicals in hopes of becoming better athletes also commonly abuse other drugs, said the programs' developer, Dr. Linn Goldberg of Oregon Health and Science University. "Steroid use goes along with other illicit drug use," he said.

ATLAS and ATHENA are designed to prevent that, by having students set examples on training and eating right, Goldberg said.

Teens who went through the program "got stronger, had less body fat, better nutritional practices, and a more than 50% reduction in the use of steroids," Goldberg said.

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