The government’s expert drug advisers are pressing for a ban on online imports of anabolic steroids amid growing concern over their use by teenage boys and young men to improve their body image.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) says the ban is needed because the steroids sold online are often contaminated, out of date, or delivered with the wrong dosage instructions.
The ACMD’s chair, Professor Leslie Iversen, said steroids were now much too easily available: “If you search online you will see endless offers. The ACMD is the lone voice against this tide of promotion on the internet. We think [an import ban] would have a considerable dampening effect on demand. It may be difficult to enforce but it would act as a simple deterrent.”
Iversen said steroids were becoming a “big phenomenon” in Britain: “There is no question that the number using the drug for sporting reasons is now a minority. The real growth has come in young users who want to improve their body image.”
An ACMD report to the home secretary on anabolic steroids published today quotes the latest figures from the British Crime Survey, estimating that 50,000 people in the past year have used anabolic steroids for non-medical purposes, such as bodybuilding. More than 220,000 told the BCS they had used anabolic steroids.
But drug experts say these are probably underestimates of the numbers using anabolic steroids because many people will not openly admit to using the drugs, even in an anonymous self-report survey such as the BCS. Some needle and syringe exchange programmes for problem drug users have also reported an exponential rise in steroid injectors, according to the report.
Iversen said the rising use of anabolic steroids, particularly among young men, was a worrying development: “While the health-related harms associated with these substances are not as severe as with some other drugs, misuse carries significant risks, particularly for young people whose bodies are still developing. More needs to be done to tackle the supply of anabolic steroids and to educate people to the potential dangers.”
The report says most of the harmful effects of anabolic steroids are not life-threatening and only a small number of deaths have ever been attributed to liver damage associated with long-term steroid use. However, it raises distinct concerns about their use by young people saying they can potentially disrupt the normal pattern of physical growth and induce masculinising effects in women and children.
Anabolic steroids have been used since the 1950s by bodybuilders and weightlifters to build muscle as well as by elite athletes to improve their performance. The use of steroids is now widely banned by the sporting authorities.
The ACMD says anabolic steroids should remain a class C illegal drug, which can be bought on prescription from a pharmacist. While it is illegal to import or sell steroids for non-medical purposes it is currently legal to possess or import steroids as long as they are for personal use only.
The drug advisory body says it is now time to make it illegal to order substances online from overseas websites and import them by post or courier. Personal possession, including bringing them into the country, will however remain legal as the authorities believe criminalising users would simply push the problem underground.
The drugs minister, James Brokenshire, said steroids were dangerous substances which could cause serious psychiatric and physical problems: “We will carefully review the recommendations set out in this report and respond shortly.”