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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.

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Nonetheless, the reality is that their risk is nowhere near as great as that of street heroin, which varies enormously in dose and purity. This alone makes heroin riskier than OxyContin—in part because the danger of overdose is controlled by knowing the actual dose and in part because the FDA does its best to guarantee that there’s little risk of being poisoned by a drug obtained from a pharmacy. The agency, for all its flaws, came into existence because before drug regulation, all sorts of counterfeits, snake oils and even poisons were sold as medicine—a practice that continues in countries with poor or corrupt oversight over manufacturing such as China. Before the FDA, in fact, many medications contained addictive opiates, without revealing that fact on their labels.

Of course, this doesn’t make OxyContin safe to take nonmedically—or less addictive than heroin, when injected or snorted. (When taken as directly orally, it is less addictive because addiction potential is related to intense highs and lows and long-acting oral opioids produce a steadier state with fewer of them). However, it does mean that maintenance drugs like buprenorphine, methadone and (in some countries) heroin itself are safer than their street brethren because of regulation. (The reason that research into using heroin as maintenance universally shows improvements in patients’ health is that a legal supply of known dose and purity is safer.)

Consequently, if as a society we are serious about protecting our kids from addiction and overdose, we should reform our approach to prevention with the following four measures:

1. Fact-Based Rx Drug Education

The previous facts all need to be acknowledged in education about prescription drugs. Teens also need to be taught that the brain inherently underestimates the risk of the familiar, so the dangers of Rx drugs are unconsciously minimized. We need to explain exactly what addiction is (and is not).

We also must stress that drugs with similar effects often synergize to produce results where one plus one equals five, not two. Kids need to understand that the riskiest form of drug use is taking a prescription pain reliever with alcohol and/or with an addictive sedative like Valium or Xanax. If a single fact can save lives, it’s this one. We can't pretend that marijuana carries the same danger.

2. Make Naloxone Mandatory First Aid

We also need to make the antidote to these overdoses—a safe, nonaddictive drug called naloxone—available over the counter and do an education campaign to encourage everyone to keep it in their first-aid kit. Parents are always going to deny that their own kids are at risk when it comes to overdose—but if every house has emergency naloxone, not only will there be little stigma to it but the lifesaving treatment will be at hand for whoever may need it.

3. Discard Extra Opioids

People also need to either secure or get rid of their leftover opioids and anti-anxiety drugs like benzodiazepines. For those willing to discard them, the DEA holds regular  "Take Back" initiatives across the country, the next one scheduled on April 28. For those who are not fans of that agency, some pharmacies offer similar  programs.

4. Drug Safes for All!

Many, if not most, people refuse, however, to dispose of their extra Rx drugs because they are afraid—especially in an environment of crackdown on prescription drug misuse, ironically—that they won’t have access during an emergency. Given this natural tendency to hoard, we need a public information campaign to promote the use of drug safes. This is more realistic than expecting these stashes to disappear. And again, it would not be stigmatizing if promoted as a universal precaution, like baby proofing.