More and more young men are turning to steroids to bulk up, but is it worth the risk?
Finley Smith* was a typically awkward teenager. His towering six-foot-three stature and thin 70kg frame matched his sheepish personality.
“I looked like a beanpole,” he says. “In a world that’s very much about appearances, you kind of feel self-conscious about it.”
The soft-spoken 27-year-old is now anything but a beanpole. His wide-set shoulders and broad arms are a sign of the decade he’s spent hitting the gym. He’s still shy though, never quite making eye contact.
Finley’s story is surprisingly common for a steroid user; young men who feel weak, unattractive or self-conscious, workout with modest goals of building some bulk. Somewhere along the line, many make the decision to inject themselves with body-altering substances.
It sounds like quite the leap, but gym rats around the country will tell you it’s not. In fact, it’s easier, cheaper and more socially acceptable than ever to use anabolic steroids.
The non-medical use of steroids has increased since the 1990s. In New Zealand the importation, manufacture, and sale of anabolic steroids is illegal. The number of packages seized by Customs containing performance and image enhancing drugs (PIEDs), including anabolic steroids, has increased three and a half times from 89 in 2008 to 329 in 2015. Police have also successfully jailed several kingpins of the steroid black market.
Anabolic steroids are synthetic forms of the male hormone testosterone. Medically, they are used to treat things like delayed puberty, impotence, and chronic wasting conditions in cancer and AIDS patients. They also have the potential to drastically and improve athletic performance and muscle growth, making them liquid gold for those concerned with the way they look.
Finley started using steroids after five years of training naturally. To anyone looking on, he had already built significant muscle, but for him, the increasing kilos on the scale didn’t match up to his ideal body type.
“The temptation comes in at the level where you feel like you can’t lift any more weight and you physically can’t eat anymore. It just feels like you’re going nowhere yet you’re still a person that’s unsatisfied.”
As he grew bigger, so did his goals.
“It’s not just bodybuilding, it’s human nature. You reach a certain level and think ‘okay, where can I go from here?’”
At about age 20, Finley got his first vial of steroids from a friend at his gym and started a “modest cycle” of injecting 250mg of slow-release testosterone every week for 10 weeks.
The development of synthetic testosterone started in the 1940s and was used to enhance the performance of athletes in the Soviet Union. Seeing the amazing results of Russian weightlifters, US physician Dr John Ziegler worked to create a more selective form of what we now know as anabolic steroids.
But Dr Ziegler soon became disillusioned with his own invention. While prescribing only small doses to athletes, he started seeing terrible side effects. Dr Ziegler himself suffered from heart disease, a condition he put down to his own experimentation with the drug. He died in 1983 from heart failure.
Nowadays, most steroid users are not athletes. A survey of nearly 2000 US men who used steroid, most were in their 20s and 30s, well-educated and not motivated by sports. When asked about their motivation for using steroids, most said they wanted to boost their muscle mass, strength and physical attractiveness.
“The people who use it are never the people you think,” says Finley. “You often think of alpha male show ponies but I would say about 90 percent of people I’ve come across who use steroids are quite introverted.”
It would be easy to accuse Finley of just describing himself, but he’s come to know hundreds of users through dealing the drug.
“It’s not like you wake up one day and say ‘I’m going to be someone who deals’,” he says, but the longer he spent at the gym, the more people started approaching him for gear. He never considered himself a front foot dealer – strictly referrals only - but as he became a reliable source of “high-quality goods”, word got around.
“After a few weeks of passive dealing, I could accumulate a good grand or so.”
Dealing steroids wasn’t Finley’s ticket to riches although he knows if he’d been serious about it, the money would have poured in. “The sky’s the limit really. There is no shortage of people who want it. There’s always demand.’
Most New Zealanders using steroids are buying products manufactured here and, according to Finley, it’s a relatively simple pursuit.
“All the ingredients you can get from China and the other things, like vials and oils, can be purchased online legally. If you can get your raw products through, it’s not rocket science putting it together.”
The ease of manufacturing has led to two major changes in a previously exclusive and tightknit market: Lower prices and lower quality products. A running joke in the gym community points to some of the cheapest vials probably just being doses of olive oil.
“When I first started, you could pay $100 to $200 for a vial. Now you see product as low as $50. There are no regulations about how it’s manufactured and this is a product people are injecting into their bodies.”
Finley stopped dealing and using steroids several years ago. His priorities changed, he says, and a clamp down on manufacturers made him reconsider the risks he was taking.
In 2013, Phillip Musson was sentenced to nearly four and a half years imprisonment for masterminding the importation, selling and distribution of steroids and party pills.
“Everyone thought ‘oh shit, they do care about us’. Previously I think we all thought we were under the radar but when that whole thing collapsed, people realised how much data the police had; phone records, text messages, transaction recipients dating back years.”
“It was a bit of a reality check. People I knew were going to jail over this.”
John O’Keeffe, National Drug Intelligence Manager at New Zealand Police, says steroid manufacture and supply is being actively monitored along with other illicit drug activity.
“Some organised criminal groups are known to be involved in supply of these substances and both users and other suppliers put themselves at risk of coming into contact with serious criminals at considerable risk to themselves.”
Anecdotal information from frontline staff and the community suggests an increase in young people seeking steroids and other performance and image enhancing drugs, says O’Keeffe.
“As with any unregulated illicit substance, use of these drugs comes with a number of risks, not least the lack of knowledge around what they are actually taking. Many manufacturers have little ‘expertise’ in preparing these substances and give little care to their customers’ safety.”
James, a 28-year-old from Wellington, mitigates the risk by never ordering his steroids online. “I usually get mine through contacts in the fitness industry and the product is NZ made.”
He pays anywhere from $80-$140 for a 10ml vial, depending on the type of steroid he’s using. Nearly all users take steroids in cycles and for a 12-week stint, he’ll inject about three vials worth of product.
James started hitting the gym around seven years ago after some friends dragged him along. Like Finley, James describes himself as looking like “a rake” before training. In his first year, he put on 20kgs naturally which kept the gym-addiction alive. His steroid use started just a few years ago.
“In this day and age with social media being everywhere, apps like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook are filled with fitness gurus and bodybuilders. They have these amazing bodies and people see them and want to look like that.”
During the summer, James uses a stronger compound known as Trenbolone or “Tren”. It’s harsher on his body but much more effective.
Tren is an extremely powerful steroid that is generally considered to have about five times the anabolic rate of testosterone. It was designed for veterinary use to improve muscle mass and feed efficiency in cattle. As users have become more open about using Tren, it’s popularity has been growing.
Over several years of using steroids, James has had all the typical side effects: Heavy sweating at night, acne on shoulders, chest and back, mild hair loss and “roid rage”.
“You can have a short temper and lose it over the smallest things,” he says.
For years, scientists have tried to prove the association between anabolic steroids and aggression, but it’s difficult to measure. Recent animal studies have shown an increase in aggression after steroids, but users are quick to point out that alcohol makes young males aggressive too.
Dr Emma Lawrey, an emergency physician at Auckland City Hospital, is more concerned with the long-term effects on vital organs.
“You talk to some [young men] and they think it makes them healthier, stronger and fitter … they don’t always appreciate that this is causing damage to their organs even though their muscles look good.”
Dr Lawrey has been looking into steroid use in New Zealand and says the general public underestimate how many young people are taking them.
While there aren’t statistics for use in New Zealand, overseas studies suggest the rate of anabolic steroid use is about 3.3 percent globally. Not surprisingly, rates are consistently higher among gym goers than in the general population and can range between four and 24.5 percent.
Dr Lawrey has been seeing young men in her emergency department, typically in their mid-20s and well built, suffering from a specific side effect: "I’d actually seen a couple in a row with a bicep tendon rupture and something in the back of my mind reminded me that I’d read an article about upper limb tendon ruptures in men and a probable increased risk in steroid users.”
She says when she asked, several of the young men admitted they were using. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that anybody who ruptures is [using steroids], but it certainly suggests that it increases your risk.”
There’s also the increased risk of heart attacks, liver injuries and degeneration in brain function over a longer period of time to consider. She says young men are often well aware of effects like breast tissue growth and a decrease in sperm production because they happen early on.
“I think there are significant pressures on young men. You look at some of the TV shows, like the one that’s based on the Gold Coast, and these guys are really big.”
Body types have always swung in and out of fashion. Right now we’re arguably seeing a resurgence in the highly muscular look made popular by stars like Franco Columbu and Bob Paris in the “golden era” of bodybuilding.
In fact, People Magazine named this year’s sexiest man alive Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. At six-foot-five and 111kg, he’s touted as one of the largest men ever chosen by the magazine. His larger-than-life size has often left people wondering if he’s had any injectable-help but Johnson is quick to separate himself from steroids. In an interview with Fortune, he said he tried steroid before college, but hasn’t touched them since he was 18. “Sure, you get a lot of people out there who will suspect, and say shit,” he said.
Johnson is not alone. The image of “steroid users” bothers the gym community. They’re weary of being portrayed as meatheads with no idea what they’re doing. Journalists asking for interviews are often turned away and stories that do get covered are ripped apart on online forums like Gymnation.
Gymnation has close to 1200 users, 70 percent under 30 and three-quarters male. The site says forums allow for “objective and impartial” discussions with no censoring of opinions. Topics range from best brands of protein powder, cardio workouts and diet and nutrition. There are also open discussions about steroid use, although, Gymnation admin say it will ban anyone offering or requesting illegal drugs.
“I’d like to see a real story from real experienced gear users who aren't complete fuckin [sic] retards...These stories are always so one sided it makes me laugh,” said one user.
“Nothing has been achieved with this, only attention and a bad reputation for steroids and bodybuilders alike,” said another.
Matt Lorry*, a 23-year-old from Otago, believes the public is triggered by the word “steroids” without knowing much about them.
“People think that just because someone takes steroids they should look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or something. It simply doesn't work like that. Steroids are extremely effective, but they don't turn you into hulk overnight. It still takes huge amounts hard work and dedication.”
Matt, just like James and Finley, grew up feeling insecure about his body. He started taking steroids about two years ago. “They get such a bad name and usually it’s by people who have no idea how they actually work.”
He trains up to two hours every night, sticks to a strict diet, and takes steroids in 12-16 week cycles. The improvements are huge, he says.
“They vastly increase the rate and efficiency at which your body repairs the tissue damage created by lifting weights. Your body can utilise more of the nutrients from food and things such as protein synthesis are increased. There really is no competition here.”
Matt says that while he took the time to research the risks and benefits before starting his steroid regime, he’s noticing increasing numbers of others who are not.
“I do think a huge amount of people, especially young people around my age, jump on them without fully knowing the risks….It's these idiots that mess themselves up by taking outrageous dosages that give them a bad name, then they go and slander all forms of steroid use.”
Steroid users may never be able to shake the label of “fraud” and “cheaters”. Anabolic steroids are banned by all major sports bodies including the Olympics, NFL, FIFA and the NBA. Athletes have had their careers left in tatters after revelations of doping, and Olympic medals have been stripped from competitors and replaced with shame and stigma.
In New Zealand, there are increasing efforts to wipe the use of performance-enhancing drugs out of sports like rugby, and while the use is relatively low, the consequences can be huge.
Graeme Steel, Chief Executive of Drugfree Sport NZ says the organisation is getting regular information from MedSafe about young players using banned drugs. “We’ve had two cases at least in the last year which have shown young people importing prohibited substances – if not steroids, then steroid-like substances.”
Wellington premier club rugby player Andrew Burne was recently banned for six years for using and trafficking steroids. He was 21 at the time of the violations in and said he only wanted to get bigger and become a better rugby player. He says he never realised he was breaking the rules.
Steel says it’s not just steroids - there are risks in seemingly harmless supplements, too.
“You don’t necessarily know what’s in any particular product. As we speak we have a case where somebody used a supplement which purported not to have a prohibited substance in, but did.”
“The majority of supplements people are taking are creating little more than expensive urine...I suppose the rule of thumb is, if they work, they’ve probably got something in them that’s banned.”
Historically, testing for prohibited substances in rugby has been reserved for the top echelons of the sport but DFSNZ have begun testing at under-19 rugby level and testing could start younger.
“We have initiated a programme, firstly around a high level of education in schools…we certainly have in our mind there may well be a necessity to do some testing.”
Despite the harsh penalties, health risks and stigma associated with steroid use, NZ Drug Foundation says in the scale of things, it’s not a widespread problem compared to other drugs like alcohol, cannabis, methamphetamine and tobacco.
A Drugfree Sport NZ study found only two out of 142 young rugby players had taken prohibited substances. Even among gym goers where the rate of steroid is much higher, personal and societal effects are arguably mild.
Increasing penalties, certainly just for use for steroids, will only produce more criminals and New Zealand already has too many people going to jail for drug use or dealing with the stigma that stops them seeking help, says The Drug Foundation.
Among steroid users there’s seems to be a belief that while the drug isn’t great, there are worse things they could be doing to their bodies. “A lot of people that take steroids give it a bad name because they get lazy and think they can do sweet fuckall [sic] and still make gains, says Matt. “They drink all the time, eat like shit, then blame steroids for health problems.”
“Yes they aren't good for you, but they aren't necessarily going to kill you either...What harm are people doing using steroids for personal use?”
*Name has been changed to protect identity