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Steroids are hardly the drug teenagers abuse most. Cocaine and marijuana have a much larger following. Alcohol consumption tops them all.But of all the drugs teenagers abuse, steroids have a peculiar and tantalizing power. They can build unnatural masses of muscle on the slightest frame. Kids who measure their own value by their prowess at sports can pump themselves up with a simple injection. No wonder that while casual use of most illegal drugs is on the decline, steroid use apparently is increasing.

A federal study released last week reports that more than a quarter of a million teenagers have tried steroids - that's 5 percent to 11 percent of teenage boys and as many as 2.5 percent of teenage girls. By far the most troubling conclusion of the report is that use is on the upswing.

Steroids have been quietly infiltrating college and professional sports for decades. Only recently have the National Football League and college football programs - where rampant steroid use has long been suspected - cracked down with drug tests.

The effectiveness of those measures is in doubt. Players can easily outwit announced tests by simply laying off the drugs. Even the accuracy of random tests can be sabotaged with drugs that mask the presence of steroids. But the official word, at least, is that steroids will no longer be tolerated.

What worries federal health officials is that the same message isn't reaching high school athletes. Coaches may be signaling a tacit approval of steroids with offhand remarks. Constant demands for bigger, stronger athletes encourages the use of drugs that can accomplish what training can't. The example set by high school athletes is then copied by other students: Half of the teenagers who use steroids do so for cosmetic reasons.

The sad irony is that youngsters who take the drugs to enhance masculinity risk becoming sterile. Rather than improve their physical health, steroids can stunt growth, raise blood pressure and increase cholesteral levels. The drugs can cause depression, violent behavior and psychosis. Steroids aren't the most pervasive drugs among teenagers, but they aren't harmless.

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