A new form of drug abuse is spreading in the nation's gyms and health clubs among men seeking physical prowess rather than a narcotic high.
The drug in question is anabolic steroids.
The abuse of illegal steroids has long been a recognized problem among some professional and Olympic-level athletes.
But these same bodybuilding chemicals are now becoming increasingly popular among a growing number of young men and teenagers who are less interested in athletic performance than they are in how they look on the beach.
"These are not Olympic athletes. They do it for cosmetic reasons," says Ray Tricker, a researcher at Oregon State University. "They want to walk into a room and see people's jaws drop."
To some, the motive is understandable.
What 140-pound, wicket-limbed teenager wouldn't prefer the physical characteristics of an Arnold Schwarzenegger over a Woody Allen?
To others, the dangerous trend is further evidence of an American culture that often seems to prize appearance over accomplishment, character, and intellect. There are also growing concerns about the side effects of the drug on the health and behavior of users.
Estimates of the number of Americans currently using steroids range from 350,000 to 1 million. Recent surveys say as many as 12 percent of male high school students have used steroids. The trend shows no sign of slowing.
In 1991, Congress outlawed the sale and possession of steroids. But the drugs, a synthetic version of the male hormone testosterone, are widely available on an active black market supplied from Europe, where steroids are still legal. The drugs, known as "juice" among users, are most often sold furtively in gyms and training rooms where many young men go to pump iron.
Not a fitness drug
"A lot of people don't seem to care if it is legal or illegal. They just want results," says Steve Downs, editorial director at Natural Bodybuilding and Fitness magazine in New York, a publication that promotes the benefits of steroid-free training.
Researchers say steroids have been linked to several diseases and can contribute in certain users to side effects such as violent and aggressive behavior. Medical warnings often go unheeded by bodybuilders who say the risks are outweighed by the rewards of looking like a Greek god.
Physicians say the physical results of steroid use are visible within weeks, with users gaining substantial muscle bulk to their arms, chest, and legs. Comparable increases might take years of training to achieve through a drug-free weight-lifting regime, experts say. And even then, these experts say, drug-free bodybuilders could never achieve the same muscle proportions of the world's top bodybuilders, most of whom rely heavily, and secretly, on steroids.
Johnny Fitness, editor in chief of MuscleMag International magazine in Ontario, Canada, says bodybuilders believe steroids are "magic." He adds, "That is why they are so popular."
Struggling with self-esteem
There are other reasons behind the quest for physical prowess. "The majority of people who turn to bodybuilding are driven from feelings of inadequacy initially," Mr. Fitness says. "The old story of the kid getting sand kicked in his face and the guy with the big arms and chest coming by and stealing his girlfriend has some truth to it."
The sense of self-esteem bodybuilders gain from looking at and displaying their bodies is what keeps them popping steroids, says Harrison Pope, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
"When you tell people that they shouldn't use steroids, they answer: 'Why should I go back to being Clark Kent when I can go on being Superman?,' " Dr. Pope says.
Pope, Mr. Tricker, and other researchers often answer by describing what they say are the significant health risks of steroid use. And the users aren't just putting themselves in danger, they say. Research shows that a percentage of steroid users will undergo significant mood changes - mood changes that have led to violence.
In 1991, teenager Jamie Fuller of Beverly, Mass., beat his girlfriend to death during an argument. Fuller had no prior history of aggressive behavior until he began taking steroids.
At his trial, his attorney argued that Fuller was under the influence of the drugs at the time of his violent outburst and could not be held responsible for his actions. The judge and jury disagreed. Fuller is serving a life prison term without parole.
In 1994, there were two separate cases of young men killing family members or friends, apparently while under the influence of steroids. Both are serving life terms for murder.
Researchers say that these are extreme examples. But they say many other episodes of violent behavior among steroid users are going unreported.
What efforts exist to combat steroid use are focused largely on student athletes. Many high school coaches are now taking an active role in educating their students against use of steroids.
At the college level, the National Collegiate Athletic Association maintains a drug-testing program to identify steroid use among football players at Division I and Division II schools, and among track-and-field athletes at Division I schools.