'Love Island effect': Warning at body image drug use increase

Body-conscious gym and beauty fans are risking their health by taking dangerous and sometimes illegal drugs to improve their appearance in time for their summer holidays, councils warn today.

The Local Government Association, which represents councils in England and Wales who are responsible for public health, said that increasing numbers of needles being handed in at local exchange services were for image and performance enhancing drugs, or IPEDs, showing a worrying trend. These synthetically-made substances are regularly illicitly manufactured and sourced, often being bought online, with the passing and sharing of needles risking the spread of infection. 

This increase in IPEDs has led to diseases often associated with older people appearing in the young, including serious and life-threatening conditions such as cardiovascular and liver disease, as well as HIV, hepatitis B and C, together with psychological side effects such as depression. 

Most of these drugs are injected, meaning many users come into contact with council-run needle exchanges.

This comes as millions of people prepare to tune in for the final episode on Monday night of hit reality TV show Love Island, which features young couples and singletons with ‘aspirational’ bodies. Mental health charities have previously highlighted the negative impact that such programmes have on viewers who feel insecure about their image and appearance.

This increase in numbers is being experienced by councils’ public health services across the country, which have seen £700 million funding cuts over the past five years just as demand is rising. The Government’s recently published prevention green paper contained a number of ambitious proposals to improve the nation’s health, but did not contain anything about this emerging epidemic.

As part of their public health responsibilities, council-run and commissioned services offer non-judgemental, impartial help and advice to those who are in need. Examples include:

  • In Sheffield, up to 40 per cent of transactions at public health needle exchanges have been for IPEDs, with steroids being used for competitive power lifting and body building, older men using testosterone and people injecting melanotan tanning agent. The council’s non-opiate service runs a weekly ‘juice clinic’ attended by up to 20 people each session on average, offering needle exchange, safe injecting advice, blood-borne virus (BBV) screening and referral to treatment, liver function tests and blood/hormone testing. People are given feedback and specific advice on how using IPEDs is impacting their own health to help them change their behaviour.
  • In Wigan, it is estimated that between 40-60 per cent of needle exchange users request equipment for image and performance enhancing substances. The council’s public health needle exchanges are well used and numbers vary during the course of the year, with demand rising during the summer. Wigan Council is looking at several measures, including launching a new IPEDs awareness campaign, reaching out to local boxing and sports gyms and establishing a specific IPEDs clinic.
  • In Hertfordshire, the county council runs advice walk-in and telephone advice clinics, needle exchange for steroid users and is also planning to introduce a peer ‘safer steroid use’ champion. The council also offers talks in gyms on steroids use.

The most recent National IPED Info survey, published in 2016, showed that aesthetic reasons such as changing their body image and cosmetic purposes, were the most important motivation for use of IPEDs for more than half (56 per cent) of those surveyed, followed by non-competitive bodybuilding. Almost one in five (18 per cent) of the participants who had injected reported reusing their own injecting equipment, and about one in seven (15 per cent) had shared a multi-dose vial.

Chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board, Cllr Ian Hudspeth, said: “With summer now in full swing and people getting ready for their holidays, we need to remind people of the risks when it comes to taking illegal drugs or other illicit substances to try and improve their appearance.

“Councils are concerned that they are seeing a worrying rise in their areas of people using the likes of steroids or injecting melanotan tanning agent, which is linked to potentially life-threatening conditions such as cardiovascular and liver disease, as well as other physical and psychological effects.

“While doing all they can to help protect their local populations, councils are under increasing strain to provide these essential public health services just as demand is rising.

“The new Prime Minister Boris Johnson needs to use the upcoming Spending Review to reverse the £700 million cuts in public health funding and give councils the best chance of reaching out and supporting those in their communities who need help and advice.”


Councils in England face an overall funding gap of £8 billion by 2025. The LGA’s #CouncilsCan campaign calls on the new Prime Minister to ensure the forthcoming Spending Review secures the future of vital local services and the long-term financial sustainability of councils. Visit our campaign page for more information.

IPED info