The accidental overdose of actor Heath Ledger has drawn attention to a growing problem in the United States: prescription drug abuse. Although teendrug use is down nationwide, American youngsters are still getting high. And, with the exception of marijuana, prescription painkillers and cold and cough medicines are their drugs of choice — more than cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines combined. Faiza Elmasry tells us about a new campaign to raise awareness among parents that the drug addiction threat to teens today is likely to be inside their homes, rather than outside.
With an ad, featuring a drug dealer complaining that his business is down because kids are taking drugs they find in their parents' medicine cabinets, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy [ONDCP] kicked off a national campaign targeting youth prescription drug abuse. The ad ran for the first time this past weekend, [Sunday 2/3] during the Super Bowl.
"We believe it's an ideal place to launch a new campaign because it draws instant national attention to the serious problem of prescription drug abuse," ONDCP Deputy Director Scott Burns says. Recent surveys, he adds, show that teenagers are passing up street drugs for prescription ones, mainly painkillers, and cough and cold medicine.
"Teenagers tell us in survey after survey, about 70 percent of them get these prescription drugs from the medicine cabinets at home," he says. "Every day, 2500 teenagers try a painkiller for the first time.
Part of the reason, says Hallie Deaktor, of the Partnership for a Drug Free America, is their easy accessibility.
"Let's say your parents had surgery or even a tooth extracted and there are leftover painkillers," she says. "These things are pretty easy to get in the home."
Deaktor says there is also a misconception among teens and their parents that using medicine to get high is somehow safer than using street drugs like cocaine or heroin.
"That's absolutely not true," she says. "If used correctly with the doctor's prescription, in the right manner, these drugs are incredibly beneficial for many people. But if used incorrectly, especially in combination with other things, they can be just as deadly as cocaine or heroin or any of the street drugs that traditionally teens are afraid of."
Unlike many other anti-substance abuse campaigns, which focus on raising awareness among teenagers, ONDCP's Scott Burns says this effort targets parents.
"The tag line is 'Drug Dealers are Us.' This isn't a problem of somebody selling drugs on the corner or in the back ally," he says. "These drugs are coming from our homes, our medicine cabinets. If parents take part in getting involved, the problem will go away."
The Partnership for a Drug Free America, a co-sponsor of the new campaign, has been helping parents address their children's drug abuse for 20 years. Hallie Deaktor says parental involvement is vital to the solution.
"We want parents to educate themselves about this problem," she says. "A good place to go to is to visit our website at drugfree.org where you can find a ton of information on this. We want them to communicate. We want them to tell their teens, 'Look, this is absolutely as dangerous as abusing street drugs.' And a lot of kids already know how dangerous it is to abuse drugs like heroin or cocaine."
In addition to becoming informed and talking to their kids, Scott Burns says the third major step that parents should take to prevent medication abuse is to prevent access.
"We are sending out a call to parents across America. Go to your medicine cabinet, find unused or expired drugs. Throw them away in the trash," he says. "If you have other drugs that teenagers may want to access, especially painkillers, you need to take control of them."
Burns says the campaign, which also includes posters, handouts and open letters in newspapers, will run through April. He hopes all these tools will get the message out to parents that they can make an immediate difference in teen prescription drug abuse. They just have to start, now.