Strengthening the steroid law: Protecting young athletes

With the passage of a bill that bans over-the-counter sales of steroid precursors, the government has struck a needed blow against their inappropriate and dangerous use.

Posted Dec. 6, 2004.

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In the midst of St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire's 1998 run at Roger Maris' single-season home run record of 61, a reporter spotted a bottle of androstenedione in his locker. Eight years earlier, anabolic and androgenic steroids had been classified schedule III controlled substances, but andro, as it was popularly known, was merely a steroid precursor, a prohormone, and therefore legal and widely available over the counter.

There was some controversy over McGwire's use of andro to push him to a then-record 70 home runs, but there also were many reports of young athletes, inspired by McGwire's fame and performance, stocking up on andro in hopes of building strength in a flash -- potential side effects such as acne, premature baldness, infertility, kidney and liver damage, and pancreatic cancer be damned.

In fact, research released last year in the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future study found that 3.5% of students had used anabolic steroids, and 45% said they carried no great risk. The specter of precursors such as andro readily available on the market threatened to send those numbers up higher as the years went on.

Fortunately, something has been done to arrest that development, before young athletes, or anyone seeking to get a buff body out of a bottle, arrests their own body's natural development.

On Oct. 26, President Bush signed into a law a bill that designates steroid precursors -- excepting dehydroepiandrosterone, estrogens, progestins and corticosteroids, which have not been associated with athletic enhancement -- as schedule III controlled substances, just like anabolic and androgenic steroids.

And, importantly, the bill provides $15 million a year, from 2005 to 2010, for education programs on the dangers of steroid use, to make sure the message is clear that any short-term gains from steroids are sure to result in long-term pain.

The bill is the second major move the government has taken against supplements used as a training shortcut. Earlier in the year, the Food and Drug Administration banned ephedra -- a supplement, often used to speed up weight loss, that was cited as a factor in the sudden deaths of athletes such as Minnesota Vikings tackle Korey Stringer and Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler.

The AMA, along with many others in and out of organized medicine, worked to ensure that the steroid bill -- known as the Anabolic Steroid Act of 2004 -- would pass and also pushed for the ephedra ban. It has long been the AMA's policy that the use of anabolic steroids for the enhancement of athletic ability is inappropriate, and it also has been policy to support any legislation or rules that would prohibit such use. And the Association has supported efforts to educate anyone and everyone on the dangers of steroid abuse.

Shortly after the new law was signed, news reports stated that San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds -- who in 2001 hit 73 home runs to beat McGwire's record -- was being fingered as a steroid user by a San Francisco-area laboratory whose operators are under federal indictment for illegally producing and distributing steroids and human growth hormone. Bonds has denied using any performance-enhancing drugs, though he has been dogged for years by allegations because of the sudden extra burst of hitting power he developed in his late 30s.

There's a lot of discussion about whether Bonds, who is threatening Hank Aaron's all-time home run mark, and his prodigious career will be tainted because of steroid use. Meanwhile, the revelation, if proven true, will provide an even greater temptation to younger players to use steroids.

With the bill just signed, the discussion also can expand to the more immediate danger for anyone who thinks steroids are the way to athletic superstardom -- the athlete's health. And, with steroid precursors coming off the over-the-counter market, it will be much, much harder for a young athlete to rely on them in the first place.

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