Groups target steroid dangers

Campaign to educate teens about the risks of substance abuse to be launched today

February 26, 2007|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,Sun Reporter

Local hospitals, school officials, and politicians will launch a public awareness campaign today aimed at preventing teenagers from taking dangerous steroids and hormonal supplements to improve their athletic performance and appearance.

The campaign is designed to teach students, parents, teachers and coaches about the health risks posed by the substances and the social pressures that lead to their abuse.

"We need to educate teenagers on how to get to their maximum potential without turning to a substance," said John K. Tolmie, the president and CEO of St. Joseph Medical Center in Baltimore, which is spearheading the campaign.

"In the long term," he added, "these substances can result in life-threatening health problems."

The "Powered by ME!" campaign will include a telephone hot line, brochures and television and print advertisements. Organizers also plan to launch an informational Web site this week - www.PoweredByMeMD.com.

The campaign planned to kick off with a news conference at 11 a.m. today at Towson High School. Officials from St. Joseph Medical Center, State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings are scheduled to attend.

Tolmie said the campaign is one of the first of its kind in the country. It will initially focus on Baltimore and Baltimore County, but organizers hope to eventually expand the program to the rest of the state.

Few studies have explored the issue, but the number of teenagers taking steroids and supplements appears to be on the rise.

Nearly one million high school students said they had tried steroids, according to a 2003 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is three times the number of students who admitted to using them in 1993. The most rapid increase was seen among girls.

"Lots of kids have been ensnared by this," said Dr. Harry A. Brandt, the head of psychiatry at St. Joseph Medical Center.

He blames the trend on increasing pressure on teenagers to excel at sports and have a certain body type, and on the use of performance enhancers by professional athletes whom teenagers admire. In addition, the Internet has made obtaining performance enhancers much easier.

"There is a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of access to these drugs," he said.

Illegal use of synthetic steroids has been linked to a host of health problems, including depression, stunted growth, heart disease, and liver and prostrate cancer, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The most commonly abused are anabolic steroids, synthetic substances related to male sex hormones that promote muscle growth.

The campaign will also target legal hormonal supplements such as dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a precursor of the hormones estrogen and testosterone.

Proponents claim supplements like DHEA promote muscle growth and fat loss, even though there is no scientific evidence they do either. While they can be purchased without a prescription and ordered online, doctors are concerned they could be harmful to teenagers' health.

"We don't know what the impact is going to be on a whole generation using these substances," Brandt said.

He said teenagers take illegal steroids and legal supplements for a variety of reasons. One is the quest for the perfect body - or at least the perfect body as portrayed in the popular media.

"We live in a culture," he said, "where we are barraged by images of exceedingly thin and muscular individuals."

Undue pressure from parents and coaches to excel at sports can also drive students to performance enhancers.

Ronald J. Belinko, athletic coordinator for Baltimore County public schools, noted that the NBC series Friday Night Lights raised the issue of steroids recently when a high school football player began taking steroids after he was told by a college recruiter that he wasn't athletic enough to warrant a scholarship offer.

New Jersey is the only state in the country that tests high school athletes for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. Legislators in Florida, Texas, Illinois and Connecticut are considering following suit.

Some individual schools in Texas have been testing their athletes, while players, coaches and parents in California are required to sign contracts promising that the athletes will refrain from using steroids.

But Belinko noted issues like the athletes' right to privacy, cost (tests range between $90 and $120 each) and penalties for those who test positive as potential roadblocks to mandatory testing.

"I think this initiative that they're doing now is really the answer, to have a resource for education," he said of the Powered by ME! campaign.

St. Joseph's Tolmie said high-profile cases of professional athletes testing positive for steroids have exacerbated the problem.

In fact, the idea for the campaign came from 2005 congressional hearings on the use of illegal performance enhancers by professional baseball players, he said.

"The professional athletes are the idols of the youth, and some have set a bad example," Tolmie said.

He added that part of the allure of steroids is that they work - if only for a time. Eventually, however, their harmful effects set in and the initial boost in performance declines.

"The youth are saying, `The reason I took them was to make me better, to make me bigger, to make me faster,'" he said. "They aren't hearing the other side, the dangers of these substances."

chris.emery@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.

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