It won’t get you high, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most popular drugs you can buy on the Internet. In the search for six-pack abs, teens are increasingly turning to performance enhancers like Human Growth Hormone and anabolic steroids that they hope will give them a perfect body. So much, in fact, that teen use of HGH, also known as Somatropin, more than doubled in the past two years.
A report released on Wednesday by Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (formerly called Partnership for a Drug-Free America) found that 11 percent of kids in grades 9-12 had taken synthetic HGH at least once. Or at least, that’s what they thought. Synthetic HGH is available only through a doctor and by prescription in the US; the majority of what teens buy online are mystery drug cocktails created in China.
“It’s Russian Roulette,” Steve Pasierb, President of Partnership for Drug-Free Kids told VICE News. “Are they taking their health risk with HGH or are they taking a health risk with some toxin?”
Taking actual HGH can have dangerous side effects, especially for kids. Regulated by the FDA, the hormone is prescribed for children in cases where it is deficient in the body or for specific syndromes and diseases, such as treating HIV-related wasting. That’s despite the fact that the FDA has found a 30 percent increased risk of death caused by medically prescribed and monitored HGH use.
But outside of medically prescribed treatment, HGH use can cause other kinds of serious harm. Pasierb told VICE News that even the real stuff “can contribute to the growth of tumors and to diabetes.”
Most kids can’t afford medical grade HGH, which can average $2000 for a monthly supply and needs to be taken for around six months before having any effect. So what exactly are they buying?
Drug Enforcement Administration spokesperson Rusty Payne, told VICE News that Chinese pharmaceutical factories are “synthesizing a new drug every day.”
“When you have thousands of chemical manufacturing companies in China making huge amounts of steroids and HGH, and you can jump online and get that stuff mailed to you, that’s a difficult thing to manage and regulate,” Payne told VICE News.
But it’s not just online HGH knockoffs that irk federal agencies. An even bigger problem could be sitting on the shelf at your local health food store or gym.
“We’ve done cases where we know for sure that a company is tainting their supplements with controlled supplements,” said Payne, “A shake, a powder, a pill, whatever you take for working out – we’re finding that a lot of these companies are putting in illicit substances like steroids without putting them in the label.”
That means not only are increased amounts of teens taking growth hormones on purpose, many may also be taking steroids and hormones without being aware of it.
Because pro athletes are regularly tested to detect doping, leagues such as the NFL and MLB only allow players to ingest sports supplements that are certified by the National Sanitation Foundation, which offers the only accredited American safety testing and certification of nutritional supplements and screens products for more than 165 banned substances.
The FDA regulates prescription Human Growth Hormone, but its law enforcement division also cracks down on illegal HGH sales. In 2010 the agency busted Chinese drug manufacturer GeneScience Pharmaceutical for illegally smuggling and marketing HGH in the US, forcing the company to pay $7.5 million in fines. Since then, there have been several other large-scale convictions for HGH distribution.
The FDA also warns against teen steroid use, saying they are at “heightened risk” because their bodies are still developing.
But regardless of age, some of the most common effects of steroid use are psychological: mood swings, irritability, aggression, and paranoia.
For Don Hooton, anabolic steroids had a severe mood-destabilizing effect on his son Taylor, who committed suicide in 2003 after using steroids for about 7 months as a junior in high school.
“None of us realized that over half the boys on his baseball team were already using,” Hooton told VICE News. His Texas-based Taylor Hooton Foundation sends educators to schools and universities; according to the foundation, 85 percent of US high school students have never had an adult talk to them about performance-enhancing drug use.
“People joke about ‘roid rage’ but it’s very, very real,” said Hooton, “And the opposite side of that mood is severe depression, especially when the user is trying to quit.”
Hooton’s son was an athlete, but sources interviewed for this article said that teens are also turning to HGH and steroids just because they want to look good. For boys, the common belief is that HGH will make you taller, more muscular, maybe put some hair on your chest.
And for more than half of teen steroid users, that’s worth dying for. In a 2005 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey taken by the Centers for Disease Control, 57 percent of teen steroid users said they would continue to use even if it shortened their lifespan.
Cultural conceptions of steroid users as “winners” may be partially to blame. Media coverage of high performing athletes like Alex Rodriguez and Lance Armstrong can inadvertently send the deceiving message that top athletes win because of drug use.
Armstrong’s Tour De France teammate Tyler Hamilton currently works the lecture circuit and talks to kids about steroid use, but Hamilton famously confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs in 2011, voluntarily returning his gold medal and publicly implicating Armstrong as a user.
Hamilton told VICE News that he suffered from intense depression, “the worst it ever was when I was doping.” He said the depression was not only due to the mood swing effect of the drugs, but also from the constant lying and trying to hide his doping while at the peak of his career.
“I talk to kids and say, look at the bigger picture. My whole life I was trying to win the gold medal. But it didn’t feel anything like the way it should. Giving it back felt better than getting it,” Hamilton said.
But even Hamilton has noticed a shift in who uses performance-enhancing drugs like Human Growth Hormone and anabolic steroids: away from athletes and towards regular kids.
“There was pressure back when I was doing it but today it’s far worse,” said Hamilton, “There’s so much pressure to win, whatever winning is – socially, athletically, appearance-wise. These teen guys are all into having six packs and stuff. They’re going to extremes.”
Follow Mary Emily O'Hara on Twitter: @MaryEmilyOHara
Photo by Flickr/Lin Mei