Steroids: A Spreading PerilSkip Rozin
If you are a middle-class American and have a serious athlete in the house, odds are that your youngster has at least thought about taking steroids. It doesn't matter if you live in Seattle or Grosse Pointe or Boston. Steroids are everywhere.
In the four years since anabolic steroids went on the federal controlled-substance list, their legal manufacture in the U.S. has been severely restricted, yet they appear to be more available than ever. It's no mystery why. Domestic demand is enormous, and profits are excellent. A single kilogram of raw testosterone purchased legally at wholesale for $500 can sell for $24,000 on the black market, be mixed with calcium and made into tablets, and produce about $100,000 in illicit steroid sales. Says Gene R. Haislip, deputy assistant administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA): "We see factories all over the world producing amounts clearly in excess of any legitimate need, but they're only meeting market demand. This is a consumer-driven operation."
STARTING AT 10. Steroids are being abused not just by elite athletes out to set records, such as the young Chinese swimmers who tested positive at the Asia Games in Hiroshima last October. They are being taken by jocks all across America and often by young people just out to look good.
How many American teenagers are taking steroids? It's tough to get hard numbers. The University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future study, released in December, 1994, reports that more than 200,000 high school males nationwide took steroids within the year. Other estimates between 1988 and 1994 put the number of teens who used steroids as high as 500,000 a year, with confirmed reports of kids starting as young as 10.
"It doesn't matter if the number is 3% or 6%.... Too many parents are simply not alarmed that their kids are taking them," says Alan I. Leshner, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
In a world where young people are constantly being bombarded by images of Adonis-like bodies and powerful athletes signing multimillion-dollar contracts, steroids can look like a magic elixir. The problem is: They work. "Juice," as steroids are called by gym rats, can pump you up fast, increase your speed, decrease the time it takes to rebound from a serious workout, and often make you as ferocious as Mike Tyson with a bloodied nose. Anyone who has ever used them or competed against a user knows that. A pumped-up Ben Johnson made the power of steroids strikingly clear when he beat Carl Lewis in the 1988 Olympic 100 meters.
"After Johnson got caught, a number of my colleagues agreed steroid use would increase," says Charles Yesalis, professor of sport science at Pennsylvania State University. "He was big, he was buff, and he blew Carl Lewis' doors off. That's still the fastest time ever recorded."
The International Olympic Committee began testing in 1976, and 10 years later the National College Athletic Assn. started a similar program. But of the four major sports leagues in America, only the National Football League requires tests for steroids.
Big-time sports "like the benefits," says Yesalis. "It gives world records, bigger-than-life humans with tremendous physical capacities they could not attain without drugs. That sells television minutes and endorsements."
It was predictable that the general population would eventually want what steroids promise. Nationwide use, set at more than 1 million by NIDA, is admittedly underreported. Smoking grass is cool, and cocaine has its own cachet, but who wants to confess that their muscles are chemically induced?
At the high school level, too many teenagers get mixed messages from authority figures. Stories abound of coaches looking away while young players bulk up. When concern about anabolic steroids in Illinois prompted a statewide study in 1991, results showed that "teachers/coaches" ranked second as a source for the drugs, right behind "teammates/friends." A shocking 21% of users said a coach or teacher suggested steroids, reports Gregory Gaa, who ran the state-funded study. In Panama City, Fla., last fall, one member of the high school football team allegedly killed a fellow player over a steroid deal gone sour: Police say the assailant didn't have the $1,500 he needed for his roids.
"I've gotten calls from parents wanting to know where to get steroids for their kids," says Gaa, coordinator of outreach services for the Great Plains Sports Medicine & Rehabilitation Center in Peoria, which treats sports injuries across Illinois. "One guy, calling about his seventh-grade son, said he had all this potential to be an outstanding athlete but just wasn't big enough."
ROID RAGE. Usage among teenagers is particularly disturbing because it can stop the growth of long bones and curtail height. There is also the potential for testicular shrinkage, liver tumors, liver chemistry abnormalities, alterations in tendons, reduction of HDL-cholesterol, and increased total cholesterol.
Who knows what physical problems lie ahead? Says Dr. Gary I. Wadler of the American College of Sports Medicine and Cornell University Medical College: "I have great concerns for what we're going to see 10 to 15 years down the road."
There is growing evidence that steroids can be a psychological bombshell, too. Harrison G. Pope Jr., assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, warns that such reactions are unpredictable. "These are people with no history of violence or mood swings who will nevertheless go berserk on steroids, in rare cases becoming homicidal," he says.
Greg Kostas, a 35-year-old raw-materials buyer for a gasket manufacturer in Boston, used steroids for 13 years. He went from his natural 183 pounds to 242 within 22 months. The gym was where he bought his first steroids and eventually where he began selling them.
And the gym became his pulpit to preach the steroid gospel to kids--no less than 100 by his own count. That's the pattern in the gyms: First you are inspired by the hulks, then you inspire others. "I had this one kid, 15 years old--I made a monster out of him," says Kostas of one three-year training partner. "I took him from 150 pounds to 236 in a year, and he was out of control, fighting, stealing."
Kostas still works out, but he quit taking drugs years ago. Too many problems: high blood pressure, swollen lymph nodes--and guilt about the kids. "I did wrong for 13 years, and it was time to set it right," says Kostas, who now lectures youngbloods at the gym about the dangers of steroids.
This physical alchemy does not come cheap. Steroids are taken in cycles, 6 to 12 weeks long and usually in groups, a practice called "stacking." Depending on the kinds and number of drugs, a short four-drug cycle can cost about $2,000. A champion bodybuilder in one recent DEA case spent $30,000 a year.
Where are these steroids coming from? Mostly not from America. While legal drug sales have doubled in the past five years, to $71 billion, legitimate steroid sales in the U.S. are down to about $3 million annually at wholesale. That's less than half the figure for 1989, before they were controlled, says Susan Koch of IMS America, a pharmaceutical marketing research firm.
Foreign opportunists have rushed to satisfy illegal demand in the U.S. Steroids' new popularity has spurred production in Greece, India, Poland, and Spain according to the DEA, and recent investigations indicate activity in South Korea. But the results of a six-month BUSINESS WEEK inquiry point to Europe and Mexico as primary sources for the international steroid traffic, a trade generating as much as $750 million a year.
Dr. Toms Buril, former director of the Czech Republic's national drug intelligence service, observes that political upheaval in Eastern Europe has allowed clandestine steroid labs to flourish. With privatization of the pharmaceutical industry, Buril says, many of the rigid controls of the communist regimes have disappeared, and drug traders have capitalized on cracks in the system.
Russia's Drug Control Dept. reports that steroids reach the black market right from factories and warehouses, to be sold openly on the street. And Buril says that steroids stockpiled by the former Red Army, which encouraged their use, have just disappeared. Of grave concern are potentially more hazardous animal growth hormones coming out of Bulgaria. "It is quite easy to convert these products for human consumption," says Ladislav Koukal, an Interpol officer in the Czech Republic.
The biggest steroid raid ever conducted in Britain points up the international nature of the business. On a cold December day in 1993, authorities hit two innocuous-looking industrial buildings north of London on a tip that the designer drug Ecstasy was being made there. Instead, the raid netted $1.6 million worth of drugmaking equipment and raw testosterone that had somehow been obtained from Roussel Uclaf, a French pharmaceutical company. The mastermind of the operation had fled steroid manufacturing charges in his native Australia, jumping bail with another Aussie to set up shop in Britain. Police closed the friend's plant in rural Scotland last summer, confiscating $852,000 worth of steroids.
"This was an enormous operation...[with] manufacturers supporting wholesalers," says Detective Constable Andrew D. Morter. Professional tableting machines turned out counterfeit Ciba-Geigy Ltd. steroid pills, complete with a stamped "C." Packaging was especially convincing, with batch numbers and bar codes corresponding to products by the legitimate manufacturers. Police cleared out three warehouses of about 1 million items and uncovered evidence that drugs had already been shipped from there to the U.S.
It was a huge operation for Britain--but worth only a few lines in a schematic tracing steroid sources worldwide and their growing market. Federal government seizures indicate that Mexico is America's main provider. Personal-use quantities are so available that California drug officials christened the road south from Tijuana to Rosarito Beach and Ensenada "the Roid Corridor."
Day-trippers into Baja trying to sneak back into California with handfuls of pills and injectables stuffed into purses or jackets only hint at the problem. While officials insist that the era of smuggling truckloads of steroids has ended, they describe a pattern of smaller shipments constantly challenging American diligence. In fiscal 1994, U.S. postal inspectors made 117 arrests for steroid trafficking, most cases involving weeks of tracking and surveillance. They seized 75,000 units, with a single unit defined as 50 tablets, or one 10cc vial of injectable steroid material--enough to keep a serious athlete pumped up for two to four weeks.
Smugglers have countered by turning to private carriers. U.S. Customs is assigned to stop them, not only at obvious entry points such as New York's JFK International Airport but also at huge private terminals such as the Federal Express facility in Memphis.
Customs reported 1,185 seizures of different quantities of anabolic steroids for 1994, but it will not estimate how much eluded its net. "Steroids aren't gold," says U.S. Postal Inspector Edward C. Fluekiger, who works international cases from his Springfield (Mo.) office. "Smugglers just keep sending more, hoping some get through." Joe Kenney of the California State Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, a veteran of the steroid beat, estimates authorities stop as little as 7% of steroid shipments from abroad. Because federal sentencing guidelines are based on the amount of drugs in a trafficker's possession--and a single dose of steroids is defined as 50 pills--jail time is not much of a deterrent.
Alarm in high schools across the country has spurred programs to combat the growing use of steroids. School districts in at least 14 states--among them Arizona, California, Florida, and Indiana--have been concerned enough to initiate the testing of student athletes for steroids despite the expense of $65 to $150 per test.
The Paradise Valley schools in Phoenix took action after a survey of coaches, parents, and student athletes voiced concern over steroids and overwhelmingly supported testing. (That program is currently on hold pending the outcome of a Supreme Court case challenging testing.) But the defining event was a football game. "I looked at the other school's sidelines," says Horizon High Principal John A. Stollar Jr., "and saw this big poster showing a syringe in a red circle with a line through it and the salutation `We don't do steroids."'
Yet while educators and law-enforcement authorities struggle to control the flow of steroids into U.S. high schools and colleges, the rest of the world rushes to create more supply. The brutal fact is that the end of the trail is a pumped-up country seduced by steroids. It's called America.
WHAT, WHEN, WHY, HOW BAD
ORIGIN Anabolic steroids, a synthetic version of the male hormone testosterone that occurs naturally in the body, were developed in the 1930s to help patients malnourished because of disease and war.
MEDICAL USE Today, steroids are used chiefly to treat men who have lost the ability to produce testosterone.
ATHLETIC APPEAL Steroids increase lean body mass and strength, improve muscle definition, quicken acceleration, and decrease recovery time--permitting more frequent workouts and thus even swifter gains in speed, strength, and bulk. They can also induce aggressiveness.
DANGERS The telltale signs of steroid abuse: acne, a deep voice, facial and body hair in women; enlarged breasts in men. More serious is the potential for testicular shrinkage, liver tumors, liver chemistry abnormalities, alterations in tendons, reduction of HDL-cholesterol, and increased total cholesterol. Dependency syndrome is also documented, and users sharing needles risk HIV and hepatitis. Steroids can permanently halt the growth of long bones, causing shortened stature in teenagers.