Data are handy for making a point – so much so that it’s awfully easy to push them harder than justified. That just might have been the case in a couple of paragraphs in last week’s Mitchell Report on steroids in baseball, focusing on the drug’s use by teenagers.
“Some estimates appear to show a recent decline in steroid use by high school students; they range from 3 to 6 percent,” the report said. “But even the lower figure means that hundreds of thousands of high-school aged young people are still illegally using steroids.”
The prevalence data we see are somewhat different; the report looks to have misconstrued what's out there, and missed some updates from 2005 and 2007 alike. Actual current-use incidence is lower – and the "hundreds of thousands" may not be quite that.
In the most current of the two sources the Mitchell Report footnoted, use of steroids in the past year was reported at 2.7 percent among 12th-grade boys in 2006; that fits the lower range it gave. But the report says “students,” not just boys, and not just 12th graders. Annual use of steroids was much lower among girls (0.7 percent in the 12th grade); the total for all 12th-graders was 1.8 percent. It was lower as well among younger, 10th-grade high-schoolers, 1.2 percent. And recent use – in the past month, rather than in the past year – was lower still.
That’s from the 2006 “Monitoring the Future” survey by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. As it happens, just last week (apparently after the Mitchell Report was completed, though before its release), MTF released its 2007 data. Continuing a trend over the past several years, it found 2007 annual steroid use down to 1.4 percent among 12th graders, and 1.1 percent among 10th graders.
Since its peak years (from 1999 to 2002, depending on age), “the annual prevalence rate has dropped by more than half among the 8th- and 10th-grade males… and by 40 percent among the 12th-grader males,” Monitoring the Future reported. It also reported an increase in the number of 12th graders who see “great risk” in trying anabolic steroids and “a sharp drop in 2005 in the perceived availability of these drugs, very likely due to the Anabolic Control Act of 2004.”
Putting a sharper point on these findings, the MTF summary quoted Lloyd Johnston, its principal investigator: “While a number of states are considering implementing expensive programs to test student athletes for anabolic steroid use, the problem has been diminishing sharply,” he said. “It appears that supply control efforts, in combination with educational efforts, are having the intended effects.”
That’s a somewhat different tone from the Mitchell Report’s, which repeated that “hundreds of thousands of our children are using” steroids, adding, “every American, not just baseball fans, ought to be shocked into action by that disturbing truth.” If action means what Johnston calls “implementing expensive testing programs,” there seems some room for debate.
Indeed, comparing his steroid-use data with the characterizations in Mitchell’s report, “These are pretty good declines, and I’m not sure he’s taking them into account,” Johnston told me. “The problem has gotten substantially better.”
The Mitchell Report cited another source for steroid use data among teens, the Centers for Disease Control’s “National Youth Risk Behavior Survey.” Mitchell’s report footnotes the CDC data from 2003, which put lifetime prevalence at 6.1 percent. But, inexplicably, that seems to miss more recent CDC data, from 2005, which put it at a lower 4 percent. And the CDC measures lifetime use – ever in your lifetime – as opposed to MTF's measurements of annual use and 30-day-use (which, as noted, is lowest of all). The Mitchell Report employed the active verb “using.” That best describes 30-day use; at a slight reach it’s OK for annual use, but it’s not an accurate depiction of lifetime use.
As an aside, there also are differences in how the CDC and MTF studies ask about steroids that could contribute to different results. The MTF question looks preferable to us, since it defines steroids much more clearly.
So how about those “hundreds of thousands” of high-school-aged steroid users? The Census Bureau estimates there are 16,564,000 high school students in the United States (a generous estimate, since it includes all 9th graders). If we average the MTF 2007 “annual use” figures for 10th- and 12th-graders, we get an annual prevalence estimate of 1.25 percent, or 207,050 – barely there. Using 30-day use, it’s 0.75 percent, or 124,230 kids – plenty too many, but not hundreds of thousands.
Clearly any illegal, unprescribed use of steroids is wrong, and – particularly in the case of teenagers – cause for alarm. But the subject surely is worthy of sticking with a careful reading of the best and most recent data. In this, the Mitchell Report might keep in mind the truism of baseball itself: There’s always someone watching your stats.