Shilling For Steroids

It was the talk of the airwaves today: Congress held hearings on steroid use in professional baseball, with sports stars like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa subpoenaed to be there. Is steroid use wrong? Can baseball police itself? Are congressmen seeking the public good or just grandstanding? Should the issue lie within Congress' purview at all? Numerous participants in the public debate have opined on the issue, and it will no doubt continue to be talked about for months or more likely years to come.

The most emotion-laden argument heard is that of the superstar athlete as role model for the nation's youth. One of the witnesses at the hearing was a grieving father whose son committed suicide, it is believed, as a result of withdrawal from anabolic steroid use. If kids get the idea that steroids can make them excel at sports, maybe even make the major leagues, more kids will use them and more such tragedies will be the result, is the idea. There may or may not be a lot of truth to the notion – it is notably difficult to sort fact from fiction on matters involving drugs and especially drugs and kids. But let's assume for the sake of argument that there is at least some truth to it. There probably is at least a little.

All the more reason Congress was wrong to do what it did this week. If there were any young people in America who didn't know that steroids can enhance one's athleticism, they almost certainly know it now. Along with thinking about the policy and social issues, some young people are now thinking, more than they were before, about whether or not to take steroids. It is an inevitable chain of events whenever politicians or the media draw attention to a drug. Though I do not know whether steroid use will increase as a result of the hearings, I would not be surprised by that. Whereas I would be surprised if the hearings directly or indirectly caused steroid use to drop. That's just not the way these things tend to work out.

Anyone interested in this issue should read "How To Launch a Nationwide Drug Menace", chapter 44 of the 1972 classic, The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs. The chapter traces the evolution of glue sniffing from an obscure habit in 1959 to a major national phenomenon by the early 1960s. Anyone hurt or concerned by the harms wrought by drugs on some of their users ought to be disheartened by that story's similarities to today's steroid brouhaha. Will publicity from Congress' unintended advertising of steroid use serve to drive use up?

Time will tell, but if history is any guide, the answer is probably yes. And I for one was not interested in yet another demonstration of what not to do. Unfortunately, history likes to repeat itself. One more nationwide drug menace in the making.

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