Government advisers have said that online imports of anabolic steroids should be banned, The Guardian and The Independent today reported.
It is estimated that almost a quarter of a million people in the UK have tried the drugs, which are commonly used by males attempting to quickly build muscle mass or boost athletic performance.
However, a number of physical and psychological problems have been linked to steroid use. There is “growing concern over their use by teenage boys and young men to improve their body image”, according to The Guardian.
What is the basis for these current reports?
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) has released a report on the misuse of anabolic steroids in the UK. The ACMD says that the report was produced because of their “increasing concerns at the use of anabolic steroids by the general public, and in particular young people”. The report looked at the evidence about the harms of anabolic steroids and suggested ways in which these harms could be avoided
What are anabolic steroids?
Anabolic steroids are synthetic substances, made in the laboratory, which are similar in their chemical structure and their effects on the body to male sex hormones, particularly testosterone.
They have a number of effects on the body, including an increase in the growth of tissues such as muscle and bone, and the development of male characteristics, including muscle mass, body hair, development of the male genitals and deepening of the voice.
Medically, anabolic steroids are used to treat men who don’t produce enough testosterone (called male hypogonadism), some types of anaemia and some chronic muscle wasting conditions.
How many people use anabolic steroids?
The report states that it is difficult to know how many people use anabolic steroids for non-medical purposes. They say that the British Crime Survey in 2009/10 found that about 226,000 people aged 16 to 59 in England and Wales admitted to “ever” having used anabolic steroids. This is equivalent to 0.7% of people in this age group.
They say that the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse recently reported that “some [local drug partnerships] had seen an exponential rise in steroid use in recent years”.
What are the potential harms of steroids?
The ACMD reported that a range of potential harms is associated with the use of anabolic steroids, including acne, cardiovascular symptoms, liver problems and psychological symptoms such as aggression, violence and low-level symptoms of mania (called hypomania). In young people, anabolic steroids could interfere with growth and behaviour, and could lead to the inappropriate development of male characteristics.
The ACMD also highlights the possibility that anabolic steroids bought for non-medical use could be counterfeit or not meet the international standard for the quality of medicines.
As steroids may be injected, blood-borne infections, such as hepatitis or HIV, may also be passed between individuals if they share needles.
Is it illegal to use or possess anabolic steroids?
Anabolic steroids are currently controlled as Class C drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The ACMD report states: “They are prescription only medicines and can only be lawfully sold or supplied in accordance with a prescription from an appropriate practitioner.
"It is legal to possess or import/export anabolic steroids as long as they are intended for personal use and in the form of a medicinal product. However, the possession or import/export with intent to supply and manufacture is illegal unless authorised by a licence of the Secretary of State and could lead to 14 years in prison and an unlimited fine.”
What measures does the report suggest to tackle this problem?
The ACMD recommends that:
- Anabolic steroids should continue to be controlled as Class C drugs.
- Possession for personal use should remain a non-offence.
- Laws should be strengthened to prevent the import of anabolic steroids that are not for medical use.
- Reliable information and advice should be more widely available to combat misinformation provided by websites that promote steroid use.
- More research into the use of anabolic steroids for non-medical reasons should be carried out, including how common it is and which population groups are most affected.