Expert Opinion

A new kind of drug problem

With the news that a leading charity has reported a 645% increase in steroid users, Professor Susan Backhouse in the Institute of Sport, Physical Activity and Leisure considers this emerging issue and what the consequences can be.

Professor Susan Backhouse

In today's news, health experts have warned that more must be done to reduce the risks of the rising tide of people who are injecting themselves with anabolic androgenic steroids. AAS are artificially produced hormones that are similar to androgen, the male type sex hormones in the body. Testosterone - arguably the most potent - is being injected in doses that lead to supra physiological levels in the blood in order to achieve increased muscle mass, definition and strength.

However, such use is not without its risks, as the report today highlights. Yet, there are still gaps in our understanding of why and how people use enhancement drugs and the harms that they cause. Researchers in the Institute of Sport, Physical Activity and Leisure at Leeds Metropolitan University are currently involved in a number of projects which will inform this understanding and help shape prevention efforts. For example, we are undertaking a Rugby Football Union funded project exploring the use of performance and image enhancing substances in adolescent males. Further we are leading on a European Commission funded project that is mapping and describing the efforts to prevent doping in recreational sport across the member states of the European Union.

What we do know is that most consumers are unaware of the risks that they face. The drugs are readily accessIble and often obtained from an illicit market; making it impossible for users to be sure of the purity of the product that they are injecting directly into their system. This market is buoyant and it preys on peoples insecurities about their looks. This exploitation is reinforced by popular culture and media portrayal of idealised body types. Furthermore, the users major source of information is the internet or other users, rather than trained medical professionals. The information provided via these sources can be misleading, especially for young people who are particularly vulnerable to enticing claims of enhancement.

The report clearly highlights the risk of getting blood-borne viruses through inadequate infection control, injecting technique and needle sharing. It also emphasises a barrier to enhancement users accessing support programmes; they are generally fit and healthy individuals who do not see themselves as a 'drug user'. Therefore, it is important for us to find ways of engaging stakeholders, including consumers, parents, and teachers to inform them of the issues highlighted in the report today so that more can be done to prevent, or minimise these health harming behaviours, that are clearly on the rise. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence have suggested that outreach programmes should be set up in gyms to reach this group of drug users. We are currently working with the harm reduction service in Leeds to develop a clinic for steroid users in the city so that users can be provided with specialist advice on training and nutrition.

Professor Susan Backhouse

Director of Research / Carnegie School Of Sport

Sue is the Director of Research for Sport and Exercise Science, Leisure and Tourism, leading our REF2021 submission. Sue is an interdisciplinary academic serving as a Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Nutrition in the Carnegie School of Sport.

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