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4 Ways to Protect Kids From the Prescription Pill Epidemic, Minus the Fear Tactics

Abuse of meds by America's teens has reached epidemic proportions. But if we're serious about keeping kids away from Oxy and Adderall, we need to get honest with them.

 Over the years, people trying to prevent addiction have learned some hard lessons. One of the most important is that lying to teens about drugs is not effective. Indeed, it often backfires as they lose trust in educators as reliable sources and turn instead to friends on the street. 

So why then do we now hear over and over again that “prescription drugs are as dangerous as street drugs”? For example, when Whitney Houston died of an apparent overdose of alcohol and Rx drugs, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske told CBS News, "They're coming right out of our medicine cabinets, and yet these drugs are as addictive and dangerous as any other [street] drug." Or check out this warning on the New York State Department of Health site: "Kids need to hear from parents that getting high on lethal prescription and OTC drugs is just as dangerous as getting high on illegal street drugs."

This is not to say, of course, that OxyContin can’t be as addictive and deadly as heroin when misused. But if we pretend that having a known dose and lack of contaminants doesn’t matter, we risk losing all credibility. Teenagers aren’t stupid. They see their parents taking prescription medication—hopefully, as prescribed—and they typically don’t see them using street drugs. They themselves may be on medication for depression or ADHD. They are perfectly aware that many people are safely using the very same drugs we are demonizing.

We shouldn't be surprised, then, when they ask, "If street drugs and medications are equally dangerous, what's the point of having the FDA?" 

If we want to fight misuse of prescription drugs, we need a more honest message. Most teens are not introduced to recreational use by doctors: 87% of Rx drug abusers say the source of their drugs was a friend, family member or dealer (though many later point to medical exposure as an early experience of liking a drug).

Teens are also growing up in a culture of ubiquitous direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising, whose general message suggests that there’s a pill for any ill. Even in the absence of such promotion, every human society has cultivated some form of intoxicant. The popularity of risky nondrug highs—like the “choking game” that alters consciousness through asphyxia—indicates that supply side efforts will never defeat the human drive to get high. In one study, one in seven teens reported having tried getting high through oxygen deprivation.

But while some drug use is inevitable, drug-related harm can be dramatically reduced. For example, research on effective drug prevention shows that  the best programs actually don’t focus primarily on drugs themselves, instead teaching kids how to regulate their emotions and impulses, empathize with others and navigate the social world without feeling like chemicals are their only option when everything is overwhelming. High-quality preschool and support for new mothers in poor neighborhoods are also  good drug prevention

Getting rid of the outdated DARE and replacing it with evidence-based programs—which also fight problems like violence and risky sex—is a good place to start. DARE, which is still used by a majority of American schools and which involves having police officers teach drug ed, has repeatedly been  shown to be ineffective and sometimes to even backfire.

All this, however, will not be enough in a world where 80% of teens drink alcohol before they are legal, 56% of adults age 28 and under have tried marijuana, 19% have misused prescription painkillers like OxyContin, and 15% have misused prescription stimulants like Adderall.

Teens need to know not just that drug misuse can be dangerous but that certain drugs are far more risky than the rest. It’s precisely because prescription drugs are familiar and generally used without harm that there’s a human tendency to underestimate their risk.