An alarming trend

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By Arturo Gonzalez, M.D.

PillsGenericAs teenagers, we were exposed to cigarettes, alcohol and we probably knew of someone who smoked marijuana. Their harmful effects are well-documented and kids are made aware of the related dangers at an early age. Sadly, today’s teens and young adults are also experimenting with another type of drug that can be addictive and have deadly consequences – prescription medicine.

It’s a frightening fact that there are more Americans who die from drug overdoses than in car crashes, and this increasing trend is driven by prescription painkiller abuse. Research shows that the 12- and 13-year-old kids’ drug of choice is prescription medication. Their faulty reasoning for experimenting with these drugs includes such cavalier statements as “they are legal and prescribed by doctors, so I should be okay.” We’ve heard this far too often from our patients.

Let me share one revealing conversation I had with a 14-year-old boy who came in for a scheduled annual physical. (By the way, these routine exams provide the best opportunity for pediatricians to have critical discussions on the issues of potential substance abuse, sexual activity and depression, as well as trouble at school or in the home environment.) As usual, I asked permission from his parents to have this conversation with their son and then requested privacy with my patient, not only to examine him for a typical well-check, but to discuss any personal issues he wanted to discuss without his parents present.

I asked him if he was experimenting with drugs? He said, “Yes, do you want me to list them all? Marijuana, cocaine, black tar heroin, Ecstasy, Adderall, mushrooms and Vicodin,” indicating that two of these were prescription medications obtained from home or school. He shared that he had been using drugs since the age of 12 and then pleaded with me to help him stop. He said, “I don’t want to do this anymore, I need help.”

With his permission, we discussed this revelation and plea for help with his parents. We were all shocked by the revelation and his parents were also angry, disappointed and disbelieving. But I helped them understand that this was a cry for help and, while we can’t undo the past, we can get him help now. The result of treatment and support helped this young man stay clean and move onto college and potential great success.

Now this is an exceptional case of substance abuse that, with intervention, had a positive outcome. Unfortunately, not all adolescents and young adults are as forthcoming, or as lucky, as my patient. Preventing this kind of abuse from even starting is paramount.

It begins with awareness. Parents often don’t know that this kind of abuse is even occurring. If and when they do find out, they don’t know how to deal with a user or possible addict in the family. There is often a lot of anger, confusion and floundering around as they try to figure out what to do.

Easy access is the most significant reason underlying the abuse of prescription drugs. A first step to consider is: what is in our medicine cabinet? From old prescriptions to over-the-counter pain relievers, teens are raiding medicine cabinets of friends and relatives alike. They are looking for painkillers and other prescriptions as a means to get high.  

This trend is especially impacting our Latino youth.  

The national “Partnership Attitude Tracking Study” from 2011 shows that nearly one out of four Hispanic teens report using a prescription drug without a doctor’s prescription. Latino youth are also more likely to be surrounded by peers who use drugs. Our youth are also more likely than other teens to have used prescription medicine, Ecstasy or crack cocaine to get high.

Medical professionals know that children who begin using substances during adolescence are much more likely to become addicted later in life than someone who begins using after his or her teenage years.

To educate myself more deeply, as well as to help get the word out about the urgent need to prevent medicine abuse, I’ve been volunteering with the Arizona affiliate of the “Partnership for a Drug-Free America.” Dedicated to preventing and reducing youth drug and alcohol use, this non-profit foundation offers a prescription drug prevention page at, provided in English and Spanish. You’ll find valuable information that will help you:

  • Learn which medicines kids are abusing
  • Talk with your child at any age about the risks of using medicines without a prescription
  • Understand how parents and youth are being impacted by medicine abuse through their personal stories

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