The popularity of illegal use of steroids came evident this week as a suburban Johnson County, Kansas man pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to sell $1.3 million worth of the drug.
While the volume of the problem nationwide is large, the abuse of steroids is declining among younger Americans.
Headlines are written when major sports stars are caught using performance enhancing steroids. Yet, the largest number of abusers are everyday people. The trend is down, however, among some age groups. Russ Melchert is Dean of the School of Pharmacy at University of Missouri-Kansas City. The phenomenon of abuse and the pharmacology are among his special interests.
"I'm not surprised by 1.3 million," Melchert said. "In fact, there have been similar busts over the past two decades."
Steroid use has been hugely popular since the 1950's, says Melchert.
It started to get harder to buy anabolic steroids after 1994 when the uniformed controlled substances act put them under the monitor of the Drug Enforcement Administration. It became illegal to buy them without a doctor's prescription.
"Even with that, the market has remained hot and even getting hotter, not so much from athletics," Melchert said. "But reality is, the biggest use is from the common person, man or woman, who is trying to improve their physical appearance."
To Melchert, the phenomenon of steroid abuse is a product of attitudes to the point that someone can make $1.3 million selling black market drugs. That's essentially what 52-year-old Scott Lofquist of Fairway, Kansas pleaded guilty to. It’s playing to popular culture.
"We live in a society where body image is important to most people, and they actually have an official diagnosis or label for people who seek to improve their body image at seemingly any cost including breaking the law. And you can find information about Body Image Disorder through the National Institutes of Health. And it's people who will go to extremes to try to look better. It's really kind of ironic, if you ask me, because the people who typically use anabolic-androgenic steroids illicitly, do a lot of research into or study of healthy diets, healthy living, yet they take a lot of risks in going out and buying products on the black market that may be impure, unsafe for human use and then induce a lot of side effects."
The ultimate side effect is death. Among the risks the Pharmacy School Dean and Professor says a lot of anabolic steroids or related substances that are often abused including human growth ( hGH) hormones or others are not well absorbed when taken by mouth. So they have to be injected. When you have to inject the steroid you have to get needles. Needles and syringes are not readily available sometimes. So you have sharing of syringes. Just using the drugs themselves may increase your risk of transmission of infectious diseases such as HIV or Hepatitis B or C.
"Getting involved in this behavior just increases your risk of other potentially complicating factors such as infectious disease. But the major adverse effects people need to be aware of are potential damage to your liver that can be irreversible and fatal," he said.
It's impossible to tell how many abuse anabolic steroids -- few who do are going to answer surveys on, 'did you break the law?" -- but it's believed to be in the millions. Now there is a study through University of Michigan and National Institutes of Health called 'Monitoring the Future.' The School of Social Research has interviewed high school seniors since 1975.
"Over the past 10 or 15 years, the number of 10th, 11th and 12th grade students that have reported using anabolic-androgenic steroids at any point in their life has gone down about half," Melchert said. "So if you look back 10 or 15 years, you have about 3 percent of all 12th graders or maybe a bit more than that. The latest data that came out from about 2010, only about 1.5 percent would admit to using. And they think those numbers are pretty close. But the most alarming thing about that is, here are adolescents who have not necessarily completed all of their growth and maturation are using anabolic steroids which can have a profound effect."
In this latest criminal case from Kansas City, an east coast physician is also indicted, as are several Florida pharmacy companies. Prosecutors say sales were promoted on the internet, a buyer submitted what was disguised as a medical profile, there was no physical contact with the prescribing doctor and the drugs were shipped by pharmacies that are now under investigation and indictment. And it allegedly happened over and over.