August 14, 2008

Prescription Drugs More Accessible to Teens

By Janet Kornblum

What is easier for a typical teen to get his hands on: a six-pack of beer or a bunch of prescription drugs?

More teens now say it's easier for them to acquire prescription drugs -- usually powerful painkillers -- than it is to buy beer, according to the 13th annual survey on attitudes about drug abuse, out today, from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University.

Parents also are ignorant about their teens' use of drugs and alcohol, says the survey of teens 12 to 17 and their parents.

Almost half (46%) of teens surveyed say they leave their homes on school nights to hang out with friends -- and sometimes use drugs and alcohol. But only 14% of parents say their teens leave home to hang out with friends.

Teens still say it's easiest to buy cigarettes and marijuana. But for the first time, they say prescription drugs not prescribed to them are easier to get than beer, the survey says.

Their main source of drugs such as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin and Ritalin: "the medicine cabinet," says Elizabeth Planet, director of special projects for CASA. "Another big source of these drugs are their friends."

Says CASA president Joseph Califano,"These parents are passive pushers by not taking care of their drugs."

The survey did not delve into the precise reasons teens take these drugs, but they may think that because the medications are prescribed, they're safer than alcohol or illegal drugs such as marijuana, Califano says.

They're not, says Ralph Lopez, a New York pediatrician who specializes in teens and a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

Drugs such as Vicodin -- a commonly prescribed pain pill that causes a drunk-like feeling -- can be detrimental to the still-developing teenage brain and can impair judgment in people who already are prone to mistakes in judgment. The drugs increase "the risk for accidents, sexual activities (and) more drugs," Lopez says.

The survey comes at a time when teen use of illegal drugs is actually down, says Tom Riley, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

"While teen use of illegal drugs has gone down in recent years, the one category that has gone up is teen abuse of prescription drugs," Riley says. "Americans are in denial about how widespread this problem is."

Many recommend locking up drugs. But the best way to prevent drug abuse is good old-fashioned parenting, Planet and others say.

"We know from our research that parental engagement -- being involved in your kids' lives, monitoring what they're up to -- is a very key component in teen substance risk."

The telephone survey reached 1,002 teens and 312 parents this past spring. The margin of error is 3.1 percentage points. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>