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For the record

Steroid use amongst 11 year olds

On the 7th April 2009 Metro published a front page article entitled “Steroid junkies at the age of 11”1. The article stated that steroid use by 11 to 15-year-olds “almost doubled between 2001 and 2007, from 6,800 to 13,300”. The article also referred to figures of hospital admittance for improper use of steroids, but these are not specific to 11 year olds and only provide data in either under or over 18 categories.

Michael Blastland is the author, with Andrew Dilnot, of The Tiger That Isn’t and series producer for BBC Radio 4’s More Or Less programme. Below, he explains why the headline misrepresents the existing data:

“The emphasis of the story is on boys. The data in the main official publication on this subject - Drug use, smoking and drinking among young people in England2, published by the Information Centre for Health and Social Care - shows that the proportion of boys in the sample saying they’d taken anabolic steroids in the past year had gone up not by 100 per cent, but about 50 per cent between 2001 and 2007. Second but far more importantly, this is a change from 0.4 per cent of the sample to 0.6 per cent. Even this may give a misleading impression, however. The percentage increase is equal to about 8 or 9 boys in a sample varying between 4,687 and 4,064 in number. It would be reckless to base any bold conclusions about a changing trend of drug abuse on such tiny numbers. It might be true that such a change is taking place, but this can hardly be called good evidence for it. Chance variation in the sample would be capable on its own of producing these figures.

If we take the figures for boys and girls, these do show a doubling between 2001 and 2007, but again of very low numbers, from 0.2 per cent to 0.4 per cent. This increase is equal to about 15 or 16 people in a sample of about 8,000. Moreover, these are people who said they had taken the drug at some time in the last year; once would count. Would that constitute a ‘junkie’?

As evidence of the ups and downs in the numbers, we could observe that the proportion of boys or girls saying they took steroids actually fell in the last year for which we have data: down from 0.7 per cent to 0.6 per cent for boys, and 0.3 per cent to 0.2 per cent for girls.

Once again, however, the underlying numbers are small and cannot be taken to tell us much with any serious degree of confidence. The researchers invented the name of a drug and inserted it into the questionnaire as a means of measuring truthfulness. It is worth noting that the proportion of pupils who say they have taken this drug that does not exist is 0.2 per cent, which is equal to the supposed increase of 0.2 per cent in either boys alone or boys and girls combined.

Again, it is worth stressing that none of this proves that there are no changes in the rates of steroid abuse. But nor does it prove that there are any such changes. The official report looks like a perfectly decent piece of work which makes no particular claim about trends in steroid abuse. The news story looks rather less temperate.

The overall conclusion of the official report is that the extent of drug taking among young people showed a small decline between 2001 and 2007, from about 29 per cent to about 25 per cent.”

1 Steroid junkies at the age of 11

2 Drug Use, Smoking and Drinking among young people in England 2007


Author: Sense About Science

Document type: For The Record

Published: 17 April 2009

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