Recreational steroid use by New Zealanders has been described as a "huge elephant in the room" by a leading voice in the fight against doping.
Dr David Gerrard, an Otago University associate professor and sports medicine expert, says anabolic steroid use is common outside the realms of professional sports, with gym goers, military personnel and bouncers among the groups likely to illicitly use the muscle-building drugs.
Seizure of performance and image enhancing drugs (Pieds) at New Zealand's borders hit record levels in 2012, and sources in the fitness industry insist their use in New Zealand is both widespread and increasing.
However, with research into Pied use outside of elite sports virtually non-existent, the full extent of the steroid problem in this country is unknown.
The Ministry of Health has no statistics on Pied use and the Health Research Council - the Government's major funder of health research projects - has not funded any studies related to Pieds.
"I think there is a huge elephant in the room in terms of the non-sporting use of anabolic steroids," Dr Gerrard said. "It's a very important extension to the debate we've had for many years about sport."
Drug Free Sport New Zealand has identified the lack of knowledge about steroid use outside of competitive sports as an issue that needs addressing. The board of DFSNZ was meeting today to discuss the matter.
"DFSNZ has a strong interest in generating better information on this topic and is currently in the middle of reviewing existing studies and determining how best to fill any knowledge gaps," chief executive Graeme Steel said.
A former Commonwealth champion swimmer, Dr Gerrard has long warned of the dangers of steroid use. In 1999 he testified at a coroner's inquest into the suicide of Invercargill steroid user Kris McKenzie.
Steroid use posed dangers to mental as well as physical health," he testified. "Significant adverse psychological effects from the use of anabolic steroids have also been reported. These include altered personality, mood swings, bouts of uncharacteristic aggression, schizophrenia and episodes of depression. Evidence also suggests that following withdrawal from steroid use there is an increase in the risk of depressive illness."
While the link between anabolic steroid use and mental illnesses such as psychosis and depression was clear, there had been no detectable increase in patients with steroid-related mental health issues in the Waitemata District Health Board area, clinical director of mental health Dr Murray Patton said. That could be because patients did not report their steroid use; also used other drugs; or didn't seek help at all.
Justin Rys, a bodybuilder convicted of importing and distributing the drug fantasy, said steroid use was often blamed for mental illnesses but most sufferers would already be predisposed to those conditions before taking the drugs.