How many teen-age American boys are cheating their athletic rivals and jeopardizing their own health by taking steroids?

The answer, judging from the latest study in the Journal of the Americn Medical Association, is that the practice is far more prevalent than even most experts had thought.The study disclosed that one of every 15 American male high school seniors uses steroids. Two thirds of the steroid users began taking the artificial hormones by age 16. Forty-percent began at 15 or younger.

All told, as many as half a million young Americans are taking the controversial, muscle-building drug whose use discredited and shamed Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson.

This situation indicates an urgent need to educate students - as well as coaches, school administrators, parents and doctors - on the damaging permanent effects of steroids.

As early as junior high, students need to be informed about possible long-term side effects. Such side effects include: cutting off a child's physical development by briefly accelerating but then shutting off bone growth, reproductive abnormalities, liver damage, sharply increased risk of coronary artery disease and premature heart attacks.

The controversial drug may also affect a teenager's emotional makeup. Users have been found to be prone to sudden fits of rage and show aggressiveness due to a false sense of well-being.

Then there's the way that steroids can erode the user's character. The plain fact is that everyone who uses steroids in competitive sports, whether amateur or professional, is a cheater. The athletic arena is supposed to be a test of individual strength and skill - not of pharmacology. Athletes who seek a hidden advantage from pills or syringes are cheating just as surely as students who sneak crib sheets into exams.

Some Utahns, fortunately, are trying to deal with the problem. Last week, the Utah High School Activities Association, approved a program called Utah Target. The program, still in its infancy, will address the steroid problem as part of its drug-prevention agenda.

Dave Wilkey, assistant director of UHSAA, says that a school administrator "would have to be blind not to see the need for a steroid education program."

Beyond the health problems of steroids, users are introduced into illegal activities by obtaining the drug through the black market. Studies showed that teenagers' black-market sources included coaches, physicians, pharmacists and veterinarians.

We urge all Utah high schools to become involved with Utah Target to curtail the use of steroids with its accompanying black-market activity.

But if education programs are to be effective, they must deal with more than just the health dangers or even the cheating involved in steroid use. Sadly, part of the drug's appeal is to personal vanity.

Studies show that nearly 27 percent of high school boys using steroids were enticed to take artificial hormones to improve their appearance. The boys wanted to look more mature physically to attract girls. Sadly, then, the steroid problem points to society's preoccupation with appearances.

In addition to understanding steroids, it would be healthy if people would begin to recognize that not everyone has the physical capacity to become an athletic star. Praise should be given to teenagers who achieve in other areas of scholarship such as drama, debate, and music. Besides, what's wrong with being an ordinary, decent human being?

If we care about the health of Utah's teenagers, we need to change some of our values and support drug-prevention programs in our schools.