Abuse of Prescription & Over-the-Counter Medicines

Partnership Program to Reduce the New Substance Abuse Trend in America: Abuse of Prescription & Over-the-Counter Medicines

Over the past few years there has been a fundamental shift in the kinds of drugs that today’s teens are abusing to get high.  And while the drugs are dramatically different, their abuse can be just as dangerous, addictive and even deadly.  It is critical that parents be made aware, be given the information and tools to prevent this behavior and protect their families in order to help them live healthy lives.

The abuse of prescription (Rx) and over-the-counter (OTC) medications by teens in America is no longer a fringe activity – it is entrenched in the teen population, so much so that the abuse of Rx/OTC medicines by “Generation Rx” can be now be seen as a “normalized” behavior. According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s 2005 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS), Rx/OTC drugs join inhalants as the only category of substances where use is increasing, not decreasing, among teens.

The most recent PATS shows 19 percent (4.5 million) of teens – that’s nearly one in five – has already abused prescription medications to get high; 10 percent (2.4 million) have already abused an over-the-counter cough medicine to get high.  The study on teen drug use and attitudes confirms that “Generation Rx” has arrived as an alarming number of today’s teenagers are more likely to have abused Rx and OTC medications than a variety of illegal drugs like Ecstasy, cocaine, crack and meth.

As with all forms of drug abuse, weak attitudes and low perceptions of risk associated with abuse of medicines help drive this dangerous behavior: half of all teens say they don’t see a great risk in abusing prescription medications and more than half don’t believe abusing cough medicines to get high is risky.

This false sense of security about the potential dangers of Rx/OTC drugs is troubling enough; the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of teens see these drugs as readily available highs.  More than half the teens surveyed say one reason teens might choose to abuse prescription pain relievers is that the drugs are “available everywhere,” but the truth is teens don’t have to go far to find them:  nearly two out of three teens say these drugs are easy to get from parents’ medicine cabinets, and half say they’re easy to get through other people’s prescriptions.

Parents Are Major Influence On Decisions Teens Make For Themselves
Parents are crucial in helping prevent this behavior among teens, but according to our PATS research, many are largely unaware and feel ill-equipped to respond.  Parents generally underestimate that their teen could be vulnerable to Rx/OTC abuse and some don’t understand the idea of abusing such medications to get high because this is not a behavior that was common when they themselves were teens.  Even more concerning is that like far too many teens, some parents don’t think the intentional abuse of these medications can be as dangerous as the abuse of street drugs.

Troubling Trends:

  • Pharming – Kids “getting high” abusing Rx or OTC drugs;
  • It has never been easier for teens to obtain intentional highs from  medications – Internet accessibility and loose e-commerce enforcement further enable easy acquisition;
  • Parents do not understand the behavior of intentionally abusing medicines to get high;
  • Parents are not discussing the risks of abuse of prescription and/or non-prescription cough medicine with their children;
  • Three out of five parents report discussing marijuana “a lot” with their children, but only one third of parents report discussing the risks of using prescription medicines or non-prescription cold or cough medicine to get high.

Bottom line: a “Culture of Pharming” has taken root among America’s teens; only through education, prevention and the involvement of parents can it be rooted out.

Effective programs in reducing substance abuse – like those that reduced the teen use of cocaine, Ecstasy and cigarettes – have focused on changing attitudes to reduce demand. Especially important have been efforts to generate greater involvement by parents and other family influencers in the decisions their kids are making about abusing drugs:  The Partnership’s research has consistently shown that kids who report learning a lot about the risks of abuse from their parents are up to 50 percent less likely to use drugs as those who don’t.  Unfortunately, most parents are either unaware or in denial about their kids’ vulnerability and exposure to the intentional abuse of Rx and OTC medicines.  Perhaps because parents generally don’t think their teen could be vulnerable to Rx/OTC abuse, they don’t understand the idea of abusing such medications to get high, and, like far too many teens, they don’t think the abuse of these drugs can be as dangerous as the abuse of street drugs.

The Rx and OTC Medicine Abuse Education Campaign
The Partnership for a Drug-Free America and all its education campaigns have always been grounded and guided by research.  In 2006, the Partnership responded immediately to the troubling trends posed by the intentional abuse of RX/OTC medicines among American teens. The Partnership launched a comprehensive, multi-year prevention communications campaign to encourage parents to educate themselves about the medications kids are abusing, communicate with their kids about the difference between good medicine and bad behavior and to safeguard their own medications – and ask their friends to do the same.

The campaign was released in both English and Spanish and speaks directly to parents by alerting them that their own homes are easily accessible sources for teens to obtain and abuse these medications.  The campaign is comprised of hard-hitting television, newspaper, magazine and radio messages, and a comprehensive online component and is supplemented by informational brochures to help parents get the conversation started with their teen.  A multi-faceted public relations effort provides additional media support for the campaign and is also helping to raise awareness among parents and caregivers in communities across the nation about the abuse of medicines.

The Partnership worked with national and local media to gain pro bono airings and placements. Since the Partnership was founded 20 years ago, the media have provided generous pro bono support for the Partnership’s drug-free education message. The Partnership’s Web site, www.drugfree.org, also includes comprehensive content about the abuse of prescription medications.  Parents and teens are encouraged to visit these sites through the drugfree.org signature advertising and the Partnership’s first-ever search engine marketing effort.

TV Commercials:

Whose More Dead; Babies

Partnership to End Addiction

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