(CNSNews.com) - Anabolic steroid use among teenagers rose in the late 1990s, peaked by 2004 and has been on the decline in recent years - a trend, which experts point out, closely parallels steroid-related controversies surrounding legendary home-run hitters Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds.
A newly issued report from the Government Accountability Office finds that use of performance-enhancing drugs peaked among 10th and 12th graders between 2002 and 2004 and has declined 21 percent overall since then, according to Brian Blake, deputy chief of staff of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the federal drug czar's office.
"We saw a rise in steroid use during the '90s, and since about 2002 we've seen a pretty steep decline, and it has continued over the last couple of years," Blake told Cybercast News Service.
But University of Michigan professor Lloyd Johnston, director of the study the government relies upon to track steroid use - "Monitoring the Future" - said the rise of performance-enhancing drugs among 8th, 10th , and 12th graders was almost entirely due to the influence of McGwire, who set a major league record for most home runs in a season in 1998.
"There was a sharp upturn in the use of steroids especially among younger teen males after Mark McGwire hit his home-run record and it became known that he was using androstenedione (pronounced "andro-steen-dye-own), which is a steroid precursor," Johnston told Cybercast News Service.
"That seemed to be quite a stimulus because there really wasn't much else going on to explain the 50 percent jump in steroid use by 8th and 10th graders that year," he added.
Johnston said young people wanted to look like McGwire - the winner of a famous home run hitting duel with Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs. They wanted to emulate McGwire's "huge forearms" and seemed to be reassured about the safety of using steroids by that experience.
Starting in 2000, the use of steroids started to decline among 8th graders - and by 2004, use was declining among older teens as well.
"We saw a considerable decline among the 8th graders, which were the first to show a decline - their use has dropped by about 50 percent. That was followed, a couple of years later, by a decline among 10th graders, and a couple of years after that - in '04 to be specific - a decline among the 12th graders," Johnston said.
Indeed, the decline is dramatic, as the chart below summarizes. Use among 8th graders rose from 1.0 percent in 1995 to 1.7 percent by 2000, and then dropped to 1.1 percent in 2004. It has been dropping ever since.
Use among 10th graders peaked at 2.5 percent in 2002 and has been declining since then, and use among 12th graders peaked at 2.5 percent in 2004 and has since declined. (See Chart)
A major reason for these declines is that during this timeframe doping in sports has become a major issue, garnering extensive negative publicity while more and more sports figures gained notoriety as a result of allegations that they had used performance-enhancing drugs.
The Bonds phenomenon
But perhaps nothing has had as much impact on the reduction of steroid use than the BALCO scandal, which broke in 2003, when Bonds was called before a federal grand jury in San Francisco.
When teen boys saw superstar athletes - especially Barry Bonds - drawn into steroid-related scandals, said Johnston, some of the glamour wore off and the stimulus to use steroids was removed.
Bonds pleaded not guilty in federal court Friday to charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for purportedly lying to a grand jury about steroid use.
Though he maintains he did not use performance-enhancing drugs during his drive to become home-run king, Bonds has become the public face of a steroids scandal that has affected athletes in many sports, including runner Marion Jones, who recently admitted to steroid use and returned the Olympic gold and silver medals she won in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
"What Bill Clinton was to oral sex, Barry Bonds is to steroid use, only in reverse," said Shepherd Smith, president of the Institute for Youth Development.
"Unfortunately, we saw the incidence of oral sex among teens go up because of the news surrounding Bill Clinton and his follies in the '90s, whereas, with Barry Bonds, all of the news highlighting his alleged steroid use has had kids taking notice of the adverse consequences," Smith said.
The San Francisco Giants slugger was perhaps the most famous athlete involved in the BALCO scandal.
In 2003, as a result of reporting by two journalists at the San Francisco Chronicle, federal investigators began a probe of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO). Later that year, Bonds, Jones, and others - including New York Yankees' player Jason Giambi - appeared before a federal grand jury.
The investigation centered on the allegation that BALCO founder Victor Conte and a trainer had provided Bonds and the others with undetectable performance-enhancing drugs. Conte pleaded guilty in 2005 to charges of distributing steroids to professional athletes and laundering money.
Though Giambi would later admit to steroid use, Jones denied the allegations until this year, when she confessed she had lied. In addition to surrendering her medals, Jones will be sentenced Jan. 11.
Bonds, meanwhile, continues to deny that he has ever used the drugs and was indicted earlier this year on charges of lying to the grand jury.
Former U.S. attorney Kevin Ryan, who led the prosecution in the BALCO case, said the Bonds factor has undoubtedly played a role in the turnaround of steroid use.
"I've always said that the BALCO case galvanized the debate on steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, and that includes going down to the high school level," Ryan told Cybercast News Service.
"I think there has been a lot of discussion about it, and the message is getting out there, and parents are getting a little more involved and the dynamics are such that there has hopefully been a suppression in the use and acceptability of this stuff at that level," he added.
Still, there's more to the decline in steroid use than just the BALCO scandal. It can also be traced, in part, to other trends, such as the up-front efforts by major professional sports leagues - especially Major League Baseball and the NFL - to combat the problem with toughened standards and testing.
In 2002, MLB banned all steroid use in baseball. Moreover, in 2004, the Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of androstrenedione, the near-steroid that McGwire had admitted using.
And by 2005, when McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Curt Schilling testified on Capitol Hill at congressional hearings on steroid use in professional sports, anti-doping laws had been adopted by Congress - and every major sport, including track-and-field and cycling, has adopted anti-doping standards.
Yet another reason for the decline has been public service advertising, according to Paul Costiglio, deputy director of public affairs for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
"The hallmark of what we do is to try to elevate the perception of risk because that drives down usage - the behavior. Anything that we're doing with that - whether it's advertising with Major League Baseball, or other folks - certainly contributes to that."
Federal government programs have also played a role since President Bush first mentioned it in his State of the Union address in 2004, according to Office of National Drug Control Policy spokesman Blake.
"Over the last couple of years, a lot of the programs we have in government to help address youth prevention have started to focus more on steroids," he said.
One in particular, the $90 million Drug-Free Communities Program, involves more than 700 community coalitions that try to change the drug-use norms in their community, he said.
"Twenty-five percent of the coalitions are reporting steroids as one of the drugs they are addressing," said Blake.
In the final analysis, however, it is the sustained negative attention - especially on Bonds - and a nearly universal condemnation of steroid use that has had the most impact.
Added Ryan: "I haven't heard a single major political or athletic figure come out and say, 'Hey, what's the big deal? This stuff is not a problem. These people are consenting adults, and if they want to take something that's going to ruin their liver or their heart or shorten their life span, it's up to them.'"
"Most of the responsible participants in this debate - the owners, the parents, coaches, and trainers - have been pretty consistent in their message and people are catching on to the fact that this (steroid use) is a very bad thing. There's been a united front on this - and it has made a difference."
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