Supplement Use on Rise

Two new studies show an increase in drug use by student/athletes.

By Staff

Athletic Management, 13.6, October/November 2001,

After a steady decrease among NCAA athletes in the early 1990s, the use of performance-enhancing substances among teenagers and college-age athletes appears to have increased recently, according to two surveys released this past summer. Both surveys, however, indicate that the increases are small and that those who use banned or questionable substances remain a small minority. The substances asked about in the surveys include both nutritional supplements and banned substances such as anabolic steroids and ephedrine.

Results regarding college athletes come from the 2001 edition of the "NCAA Study of Substance Use Habits of College Student-Athletes,"which the NCAA research staff has conducted every four years since 1985. Data about younger people comes from a random telephone survey done by The Healthy Competition Foundation, a Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association project.

After declining from about 4.9 percent of respondents in 1989 to 1.1 percent in 1997, the 2001 NCAA survey showed anabolic steroid use slightly increased to 1.4 percent. Amphetamine use continued to increase, from 3.1 percent in 1997 to 3.3 percent in 2001. And ephedrine use went to 3.9 percent from 3.5 percent in 1997.

When asked why they use supplements, the most common reason was to improve athletic performance (27.3 percent). Just under 20 percent used them to suppress appetite or lose weight, and 18.8 percent wanted to improve their appearance. Similar reasons were given for using anabolic steroids and amphetamines, but ephedrine users were a little more likely to list improved appearance (20.3 percent) and appetite suppression (21.7 percent) as their main reason for use.

NCAA researchers also asked student-athletes who had stopped using nutritional supplements why they quit. Nearly one third (29.7 percent) indicated "No desire to get the effect"and another 15.9 percent reported health concerns as the reason they quit. Only 1.4 percent cited fear of losing eligibility, and a mere 0.7 percent cited coaches' rules as their motivation.

The source of these substances varied greatly by type. A majority of student-athletes (58.7 percent) reported retailers as their major source of nutritional supplements. Coaches (4.8 percent) and athletic trainers (4.5 percent) were among other sources for all classes of nutritional supplements. The most-cited source of anabolic steroids was a friend or relative (19 percent), followed by stores (15.0 percent), a physician other than their team physician (15.0 percent), a coach (8.5 percent), and athletic trainers (4.5 percent).

Meanwhile, in a broader survey, one in five Americans aged 12 to 17 know someone who takes sports supplements to enhance their athletic performance or appearance, according to the Healthy Competition Foundation survey. That projects to approximately one million young people, according to the foundation. The survey also found that 96 percent of the 785 young people surveyed in July said they were aware of the potential for health damage.

The most common substances cited were creatine, at 57 percent, and steroids, at 31 percent. Thirty percent of the surveyed youth said they first heard about the substances from friends, and 24 percent from advertising.

The Healthy Competition results are in line with the NCAA survey, which found that the use of performance-enhancing substances most often starts in high school. Among users of nutritional supplements, 57.3 percent of NCAA respondents said they first used them in high school. First use of ephedrine came in high school for 58.0 percent of respondents. The percentages were a little lower for amphetamines (46.2 percent), and anabolic steroids (41.8 percent).

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