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Performance-enhancing Drugs and Body Image – [David Mundell in the Chair] | Westminster Hall debates

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) on securing this debate. It is an important topic and he is doing some excellent campaigning. His description of bigorexia, the impact of social media and all the pressures on young men to get the perfect body image was powerful. It is true that we have been talking about these issues when it comes to women for a long time, but we have not been talking about men. I have twin boys who are 12 years old, and they tell me repeatedly that they want a six pack. They do not have one and they will not have one any time soon, but they are already thinking in that way.

The hon. Member for Bosworth mentioned Andrew Tate as a particularly powerful online influencer; they are putting great pressure on our young boys. I took a group of scouts around Parliament last week, and they were all telling me how poor Andrew Tate had been badly done by and locked up in prison for no reason. The hon. Member made the point that sometimes some of these men talk sense and sound like they are all about empowering men, but on the other hand they are being incredibly misogynistic and spreading awful mistruths. That is very true; I see it time and again.

This is an important conversation to have, and there is a wider conversation about the role that we can all play in developing what it means to be a man. I have done lots of debates about knife crime, and we talk endlessly about boys who feel they have to carry knives and be macho in order to be a man. There are boys now who go to the gym and are tempted to take steroids because they feel that is what it is to be a man. There is the growth of the horrific incel movement, with men who define themselves as not being attractive and not able to attract women. The Government need to think about all those important things in the round. It is a wider issue than this debate today.

We have covered a lot of the issues that the Government need to think about. The first thing is the law. As has been said, steroids are a class C drug, so they are illegal to own and sell. Possession is punishable by up to two years in prison or a fine, and people can get 14 years in prison for supply. Other drugs are illegal to ship or sell, but not to buy or possess. An example is the tanning drug melanotan, which I had not heard of until this debate, but it sounds like a strange thing to want to do. As with all classified substances, the Government are responsible for clamping down on the sale and use of those drugs. Although the Opposition said that the 10-year drugs plan did not go far enough, it did contain a lot of good policies. However, the fact that it did not include any of those steroids is amiss, and perhaps the Government should look at that again.

We have already talked about the physical side effects, which go way beyond what people read about when they decide that they want to get steroids. There are the potentially lethal impacts of strokes or heart attacks, as well as erectile dysfunction, sterility and loss of hair. We clearly need more information on all those things to tell people what they are likely to face if they take steroids. The other aspect is mental health. We know that use of these drugs is very high. It seems there is a debate online about the number being between 500,000 and 1 million. Perhaps 1 million is not quite right, but a large number of people in the UK use steroids; the hon. Member for Bosworth referred to the figures from UK Anti-Doping.

In a 2016 survey, 56% of steroid users said they were motivated by improving their body image, so getting stronger and fitter is not the driver here—it is body image. We all know the pressures to look good and conform to shockingly rigid beauty standards that are presented by the media. “Love Island” is back on television, as the hon. Member for Bosworth said, and there is really powerful pressure that very few of us are able to ignore. I certainly worry about my weight all the time, and why would men not do the same? We do not talk about that as much as we should.

Fads come and go, and new things will come on the market as soon as we tackle some of the older things. Recently I saw reports of a new procedure called buccal fat removal, which takes the fat out of one’s cheek. It is quite extraordinary, but apparently suddenly very popular. Surgeries and techniques and fitness tips change almost daily, but their impact on our mental health, especially that of young people, is relenting.

A study in 2021 found that 54% of men displayed signs of body dysmorphia and said that low body confidence had negative effects on aspects of their lives, while 49% of women admitted to often thinking about being lean and maintaining an extreme exercise programme and feeling anxiety at missing a workout. Over 80% of those aged 18 to 24 showed at least one sign of body dysmorphia. We have heard many more stats. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) talked about lots of the recommendations. The Women and Equalities Committee has heard that over 60% of women feel negatively about their bodies, but the equivalent figure for men does not come to the fore in the way that it should.

It is important to say that there is help out there for people who need it. The eating disorder charity Beat and the Campaign Against Living Miserably offer support to those affected by eating disorders, body dysmorphia and drugs. Help is out there for everyone, including men. Whatever toxic male influencers may say, there is no shame in seeking help for performance-enhancing drug use and body image issues. It is a sign of bravery and strength, not weakness. We should be clear that alongside proper enforcement of the law to tackle the crime, we should also tackle the causes of the crime. The next Labour Government will guarantee mental health treatment within a month for all who need it. That is a wider issue that the Government need to address.

The hon. Member for Bosworth very eloquently asked questions to the Minister. I know he is a Health Minister, so it is hard for him to talk about Home Office issues, but hopefully he can pass on the comments from this debate to his Home Office colleagues. There is a question about what is being done to stop the sale of these steroids. I was able to find a vast number of websites just by looking on Google. The websites and will sell someone steroids. There is also There were absolutely loads of them.

Although selling steroids is illegal and the Government say they are acting to stop such websites, there is little evidence that anything much is being done, so I ask the Minister: what will the Home Office do to tackle the sale of controlled IPEDs online? Will he look again at the 10-year drug strategy and perhaps expand it into this space? Will the Government commission a national review on steroid use, as has been mentioned, which the Health and Social Care Committee recommended?

The reasons that people use steroids and other image and performance-enhancing drugs are complex, but the drugs are illegal and cause serious harm to physical and mental health. This is an issue of public health as much as one of crime. It is clear from today that the Government must go further. We all need to catch up on the changing nature of the drugs that are available for people to buy. We need to move at the same speed as social media and do what we can to ease the pressure on young men in particular to build their body image by using these kinds of drugs. I am looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.