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Generation Rx:
The alarming rise in prescription drug abuse

The abuse of prescription drugs by teens has become so prevalent that the Partnership
for a Drug-Free America (PDFA) refers to this age group as "Generation Rx" in the summary of findings from its 2005 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study.

According to the recent study, nearly one in five teens in grades 7-12 (19 percent, or 4.5 million) say they've used prescription painkillers such as Vicodin or OxyContin or stimulants such as Ritalin to get high. One in ten (10 percent, or 2.4 million) report having abused cough medicine. According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, after marijuana, prescription drugs are the most commonly abused drug by teenagers.

"This seems to be more than just a craze of the moment," said Jim Steinhagen, executive director of Youth Services for Hazelden's Center for Youth and Families in Plymouth, Minn. "We started seeing more abuse of over-the-counter cough medicine about three years ago and now we're seeing greater abuse of prescription medications. When you start noticing more abuse over a sustained period of time, I'm afraid you're looking at a real trend."

Steinhagen said prescription drugs are popular because they are easy to get, they are perceived to be safe, and they do not have the stigma that other drugs like cocaine, heroin, or methampetamines have. "Peer group approval is a big factor. If 'everybody does it,' young people think it must be okay. They're not buying it on the street, so they think it must be safe. But just talk to a paramedic or a doctor who has treated a young person who has overdosed on over-the-counter or prescription medicines. These can be as life-threatening as heroin and need to be taken as seriously."

Taken appropriately, opioids such as OxyContin can relieve pain. Depressants like Xanax can help with anxiety or sleep disorders, and stimulants like Ritalin can help those who suffer from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or narcolepsy. But taking these potent drugs without a doctor's supervision or mixing them with alcohol or other drugs can be dangerous and even lethal, as evidenced by the national increase in visits to hospital emergency departments for patients who overdosed on prescription drugs. When abused, the powerful chemicals contained in these drugs can adversely affect the brain, heart, or respiratory system, and repeated use can lead to addiction. Likewise, certain over-the-counter sleep aids, cough suppressants, antihistamines, and dimenhydrinates (such as Dramamine) can also be abused for their psychoactive effects and can produce dangerous health effects when mixed with alcohol.

The abuse of these drugs has become so popular that some teens get together for "pharming parties," where they pool the drugs they've stolen from home medicine cabinets or bring the drugs they've purchased from other kids or from the Internet.

"As times and technology change, kids are the first to know about it," said Steinhagen. "They communicate with each other in on-line chat rooms and share information about mixing drug 'cocktails' for a special kind of high that will be difficult for parents to detect."

Steinhagen said "what parents know about they can talk about," but unfortunately many parents are caught totally off guard when it comes to prescription drug abuse. "It doesn't smell and there may not be the clear signs parents would know to look for." He urges parents to trust their instincts.

"You may see the same kind of warning signs as for other drug abuse: changes in personality, greater mood swings, a change in friends, a drop or change in activities, decline in grades, absences in school, withdrawal, depression, etc. If you don't think you are getting the whole truth from your child, seek assistance from a school professional, a therapist, or a drug counselor. The worst thing you can do is nothing."

Fortunately, said Steinhagen, treatment works. He said the best treatment approach is a holistic model that focuses on all aspects of an individual's life and takes into account any accompanying mental health issues like ADHD, anxiety, or depression. "At Hazelden Center for Youth and Families we also see involvement of the family as a critical factor in treatment. Parents and guardians learn what the kids are learning about addiction. We also teach them how to change relationship dynamics and give them tools for supporting their child in recovery."

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America advises parents to educate themselves, communicate with their kids, and safeguard medications. These tips and other helpful information for adults and young people can be found at their Web site at

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