Miami — For the teen-age boy who thinks he is too skinny, they offer much the same temptation as they do the college football player who needs to put on 10 or 20 more pounds of muscle. Steroids, a drug some college and professional athletes use to gain strength and bulk, appear to be finding their way to high school students as well.
Use of the body-building drug is very spotty, from school to school and region to region. But the sparse available evidence suggests that in certain high schools, 8 percent and perhaps as many as 18 percent of the male students have taken them.
The most common steroid users, at least in some schools, may not be football players or shotputters, but nonathletes who want to improve their physical appearance.
At South Plantation High School, near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the student newspaper conducted an unscientific survey in October in which 18 percent of the male students (and none of the females) reported they had taken steroids.
School district officials, although entirely uncertain about how widespread steroid use actually is, were alarmed enough so that Broward County Public Schools began mounting an antisteroid education campaign.
``We're as concerned, if not more, about students using it privately for `bulking up''' than about athletes whose coaches are likely to spot symptoms of steroid use, says Nick Fischer, associate superintendent of the Broward schools.
The student newspaper's survey also found that two-thirds of the students polled knew a fellow student who took steroids. While 12 percent felt their acquaintance took the drug for sports reasons, and 41 percent for weight-lifting ability, 45 percent specified appearance.
``I think it is a prestige drug, a social drug that kids take for their appearance,'' says Alyce Culpepper, faculty adviser to the South Plantation student newspaper.
Other evidence of steroid use in high schools runs slim. But the Hazelton Cork Foundation in Minneapolis surveys drug use in certain high schools in various states and found that in one school, 8 percent of the senior boys had taken steroids, 4 percent within a month of the survey taken last spring.
Steroids are new enough to high-school students that patterns of use are still very scattered, says Martha Newman, a research specialist at the foundation.
Overall, high school students using steroids is pegged at between 1 and 3 percent by Charles Stebbins, director of the alcohol and drug abuse prevention program of the National Federation of High Schools.
``That doesn't mean we shouldn't be paying attention to it,'' says Mr. Stebbins. ``If we did that, we would be where we were with alcohol several years ago.'' Alcohol is the most abused drug of high school students.
Anabolic steroids are a form of male hormone that is typically injected. They are legal when prescribed but are barred from many athletic competitions. Steroids are thought to be in prevalent use by top athletes in Eastern Europe, as well as in professional American football.
Steroids were most recently in the news when the University of Oklahoma's star linebacker, Brian Bosworth, was barred from the Orange Bowl game because drug tests found steroids in his system. He claimed they were prescribed for a shoulder injury.
In adults, steroid use is marked by rapid gains in weight, strength, and aggressiveness. Heavy use sometimes brings on serious side effects, including sterility. In adolescents, the drug can bring early physical maturity, but it can also stop growth prematurely.
``Anything that the pros use and the college kids use becomes accepted, in a sense,'' notes Rosswell Merrick, director of the National Association of Sports and Physical Education. ``Even at the high school level, there is pressure to win.''
Rick Perry, football coach at Stranahan High School in Broward County, Fla., has had parents ask him if they should have a doctor prescribe steroids to their athlete sons. He warns them off the drug, he says, and he has never seen the telltale signs of steroid use in his players.
His athletes have told him that they know of steroid users, but that most of them are not involved in athletics. ``It's mostly small guys who are basicly embarrassed to go to the beach,'' he says.
Most students have become aware of the dangers of steroids in the discussion that followed the October survey, says Mrs. Culpepper. Broward is designing a curriculum for health classes so all students will be aware of the dangers of steroids.