Prescription abuse quietly rising, can be deadly

(U-WIRE) LOS ANGELES – I was watching some reality television with a friend a couple of weeks ago when something on the ever-present ticker at the bottom caught our eyes: “Actor Heath Ledger found dead in bed in Mary-Kate Olsen’s NYC apartment.” We quickly did some research and watched the story unfold: the “Brokeback Mountain” rising star was found dead in his own bed, prescription pills strewn around his apartment. Two things have happened since then: the Drug Enforcement Agency has launched a full-scale investigation, and the media has gone crazy. But Ledger’s recent passing should neither be the fodder of what actor Daniel Day-Lewis called a media “circus,” nor inspiration for a new DEA blame-game. It is, in fact, an opportunity to highlight a growing problem in America: prescription drug abuse. “It’s probably the most rapidly growing substance abuse problem we’re facing,” says Rick Rawson, Ph.D. and an associate director of UCLA Medical Center’s Integrated Substance Abuse Program. “The availability of drugs like that from family members, friends, medicine cabinets and the Internet makes those drugs much more widely available than we’ve ever seen before.” Rawson notes this access to prescriptions is for legitimate purposes — none of the six drugs found in Ledger’s body or apartment are illegal if prescribed for a medical condition. They were, according to the Associated Press, “anti-anxiety medicines, sleeping pills and other (prescription) medicine.” This is especially pertinent for audiences at universities across the nation, where government and news reports point to soaring prescription misuse. According to a 2001 National Institute on Drug Abuse study, 4 percent of students have used prescription stimulants without a prescription. The figure for members of fraternities and sororities is more than twice that: 8.6 percent of surveyed members have abused Ritalin, Dexedrine and/or Adderall. A 2003 study from the same source notes that the percentage of 18- to 25-year-olds who have used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes has increased to 6 percent. Rawson agrees that the misuse of prescriptions is soaring. “There is a certain naivete when it comes to the use of prescription drugs – unlike cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamines – about the dangers that arise when used improperly.” Dangers that include death, as Ledger’s fate serves to remind America. This type of information is far more vital to the ultimate “story” of Ledger’s death than the intimate details of his health or decisions. Media outlets that focus on the scandalous aspects of the Ledger incident may attract a greater audience, but they do a disservice not only to the Ledger family but also to their own audiences. The “bring-out-the-guns” attitude of the DEA is a similar mistake. Given that none of the drugs were illegal, and that some of them were obtained in Europe while Ledger was filming, it makes sense that his doctors may not have known of his other prescriptions. Regardless, it is not the matter of who is to blame in Ledger’s death that is pertinent or extremely helpful to the greater problem – the DEA should try to educate Americans about prescription drug risks rather than arrest a doctor or two. “The government’s response to substance abuse problems in general is to look for someone to arrest and put in jail,” Rawson notes. “If they were more interested in learning about the medical issues and the dangers of them, they would educate people.” However, Rawson also cautions that education is a double-edged sword: “Education can pique curiosity and lead to experimentation, so how you get that message across can be a tricky issue.” But Rawson agrees that figuring out how to educate is much more important than figuring out who to punish. Ultimately, consumers must be responsible. Doctors can ask what other medications a patient is on (and almost always do), pharmacists can warn their clients of possible complications and the government can educate its citizens on safe prescription usage, but all of this will do little in the face of consumer abuse. As Rawson urges, “Be aware of the effects of your medications, especially when taken with alcohol or sleeping pills — many of these medications have very long half-lives, so they could be in your system for 24 hours or more after you’ve taken them. Don’t make errors in dosing by forgetting what you’ve taken (and) when.” While prescription drug abuse has hitherto been a less addressed topic than the use of heroin or cocaine, it is important to know that help exists. The alternative, as sensationalistic news reports and government rashness reminds us, could be cardiac complications including death.

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