WASHINGTON – Bodybuilders and bulky football or baseball players are not the only ones who might be using illegal steroids. Teenage girls do, too, and Congress was told Wednesday the problem will not be helped by tougher drug-testing in professional sports.
"A culture of steroid use among professional athletes, while troubling by itself, is also worrisome in its trickle-down effect," said Rep. Tom Davis (search), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.
"Studies have shown that growing numbers of young girls are beginning to use steroids," said Davis, R-Va. "Some of this use is attributed to the desire to improve athletic performance. But some is because girls are looking for a way to get thinner, to reduce body fat — to conform to an idea of beauty they feel pressured to emulate."
At a committee hearing, Davis cited a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search) of high school students in which 7.3 percent of ninth-grade girls said they had used illegal steroids.
Two witnesses, including Harrison Pope, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (search), took issues with the results of that 2003 survey.
"I would strongly question the assertion that there is currently a widespread public health problem of anabolic steroid use by teenage girls or young women in the United States," Pope said.
He objected to the methodology of the survey, which used an anonymous questionnaire and did not ask what substances were used. He suggested that some of the teenagers might have thought incorrectly that were using anabolic steroids.
But Pope and others echoed the sentiment expressed by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.: "If one person, if one young lady, uses illegal steroids, it's one too many."
Davis has joined with the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Henry Waxman of California, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to propose legislation that would govern drug-testing and punishment for the four major U.S. professional leagues.
The measure would call for a two-year ban for a first positive test and a lifetime ban for a second.
Diane Elliot, an Oregon Health & Science University professor, disputes claims that the bill would help to reduce high school steroid use.
"The steroid genie is way out of the bottle, and drug-testing professional athletes won't put it back," Elliot said.
Steroids can lead to heart attacks, strokes, cancer, sterility and mood swings. The use of most steroids without a doctor's prescription has been illegal since 1991.
Steroids can have particular effects on female users, including increased body and facial hair, deeper voice, and decreased breast size.
Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor, suggested increasing drug testing in high schools. When he studied anabolic steroid use among high school students in 1987, girls were not included.
"I never considered that use would have already reached high school girls," he said. "Unfortunately, I was wrong."
The committee did not hear from high school students. Witnesses included sprinter Kelli White, who won two world titles before failing a drug test and admitting steroid use, and cyclist Mari Holden, an Olympic silver medalist who said she has not used performance enhancers.
White said a two-year punishment for a first doping offense is too harsh; Holden said it's OK.
Lawmakers contrasted their testimony with that from pro baseball players, including Mark McGwire, and the sport's officials who appeared at a March 17 hearing.
Said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.: "Both of you put them to shame."