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Family Room

Prescription Drug Abuse

The entertainment industry hasn’t cornered the market on bad judgment. It just feels that way sometimes.

For example, as breaking toxicology reports announced that actor Heath Ledger died from a lethal combination of drugs prescribed for pain, insomnia and anxiety, Hollywood was pushing Charlie Bartlett. In this R-rated comedy, an enterprising outcast becomes a high school hero by faking psychoses to score prescription meds for his classmates. The film itself turns a conscientious corner when a peer’s suicide attempt inspires Charlie to dump his inventory down the commode. But teens would never guess that from the irreverent tone of the advertising.

Ledger’s passing was heartbreaking. For weeks you couldn’t buy a gallon of milk without seeing his image on magazines and tabloids. The photos I’ll remember most showed the 28-year-old Aussie at his very best, grinning proudly at his baby girl in bittersweet snapshots of true happiness that was soon to be interrupted.

Meanwhile, Ledger’s grieving dad, Kim, was trying to spare other families similar tragedy. He declared in a sober statement, "While no medications were taken in excess, we learned today the combination of doctor-prescribed drugs proved lethal for our boy. Heath’s accidental death serves as a caution to the hidden dangers of combining prescription medication, even at low dosage."

I pray his warning speaks loudly to young people. Because while Ledger’s chemical calamity may have been unintentional, recreational prescription drug abuse among adolescents is a very real problem, having tripled since 1992.

In 2007, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) reported that one-third of teens saw nothing morally wrong with the occasional misuse of prescription medications. In fact, one in 10 teenage girls and one in 13 boys reported using them to get high at least once in the previous twelve months.

"[Parents] are looking for alcohol and pot, not prescription drugs," the mother of 17-year-old Julie Zdeblick, who died from an overdose of OxyContin, told Family Circle. "It’s like we got suited up for the game but were dressed for the wrong sport."

On the whole, it seems our culture’s attitude toward these drugs has changed. Many teens who never would have touched street drugs now don’t see the danger in dabbling in FDA-approved, doctor-recommended substances, which are often lifted from the family medicine cabinet. The assumption is that they must be safe because they come from a pharmacy. But not if they’re taken inappropriately.

"The critical sea change came in the mid-’90s when prescription drugs were advertised on TV for the first time," said Charles Barber, author of the new book Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry Is Medicating a Nation. He believes those ad campaigns have made people think of drugs like Valium and Xanax differently. "They are on the TV with Colgate and Chevrolet and Diet Coke. It instills in consumers the idea that they are commodities like any other."

After 22-year-old Eddie Cappiello passed away in his bed from an overdose of an opioid derivative mixed with 134 milligrams of Xanax, his mother Lisa said, "Years ago, I had never even heard the word Xanax. Now I know that kids as young as 12 are using it. Then I found out that Vicodin was a very big party drug. Before school, after school, at parties. Kids mixed them with alcohol and Ecstasy. It was baffling to me."

Perhaps, as Kim Ledger suggests, the latest wake-up call will make teens think twice before raiding the medicine chest, duping an online pharmacy or grabbing a handful of unidentified pills out of a candy dish at a pharm party.

Did you know that more than 3 million 12- to 25-year-olds have sought a buzz from cough and cold medicine? Suddenly Robitussin DM is a bigger threat to the average family than crack cocaine. Rappers such as Pimp C don’t help matters when they write songs like "Sippin’ on Some Syrup" ("I got the red promethazine … thick orange and yellow ’Tuss"). Ironically, that 33-year-old hip-hop artist died in December 2007 when prescription cough medicine clashed with his sleep apnea.

Haven’t we seen enough headline-grabbing coroners’ reports? Anna Nicole Smith. Pimp C. Heath Ledger. We also lost Hawthorne Heights guitarist Casey Calvert to the lethal, unanticipated interaction of prescription drugs. And those are just the celebrities. This spring, graduating classes across the country will have empty chairs and fewer tassels to turn because teenagers underestimated the dangers of pretty pills in amber-colored bottles.

As a society, we should speak clearly and with one voice on this issue, and condemn entertainment that adds to the confusion. According to USA Today, only 48 percent of teens believe there’s "great risk" in experimenting with prescription medication. Together, we need to make that figure 100 percent. At least in our own homes.

Published February 2008