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What Teens Are Hearing About Drugs

Some Messages Help, Others Are Troubling

Some doctors remind young patients via cellphone that it's time to take their medicine.
Some doctors remind young patients via cellphone that it's time to take their medicine. (Getty Images)
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By Francesca Lunzer Kritz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 9, 2008; Page HE01

Here's a multiple-choice question for parents of tweens and teens.

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You're monitoring your child's cellphone and come across a text message encouraging her to try a prescription drug. Could the message be coming from:

A. a drugmaker trolling for a new customer.

B. an adolescent friend urging a raid on your medicine cabinet for a "pharm" party.

C. a trusted physician, offering a reminder to the 25 percent of teenagers who take a daily prescription for conditions ranging from allergies to cancer.

D. any one of the above.

The answer? D. These days, messages aimed at drawing teens' attention to drugs are being televised, e-mailed, texted and even downloaded with music every day.

"These new media choices create a buzz and certainly a perception of a rising trend toward targeting teens," says Jim Joseph, executive vice president of Saatchi & Saatchi Consumer Health+Wellness, a Manhattan advertising agency.

The challenge for teens, and for adults who care for them, is to figure out "how to wade through the clutter of messages they're getting about drugs -- both prescription and nonprescription ones -- in order to make safe and appropriate choices," says Wayne Snodgrass, a professor of pediatrics and pharmacology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Drugs.

"There's been a demystification of prescription medications for teenagers," says Sharon Levy, director of the adolescent substance abuse program at Children's Hospital Boston. According to a survey published last month by the National Center for Addictions and Substance Abuse, a growing number of teenagers say it's easier to illegally obtain prescription drugs than to buy beer.

Experts blame a cavalier attitude toward drugs for a growing incidence of prescription drug abuse by teens. Every day, 2,500 kids ages 12 to 17 abuse a prescription painkiller for the first time, according to John Walters, head of the White House's Office on National Drug Control Policy; the number of teen patients treated for prescription painkiller abuse grew threefold between 1995 and 2005.

"Teens are abusing prescription drugs because many believe . . . these drugs provide a 'safe' high," Walters says.

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