The other teen drug problem

Prescription drug abuse is up. But we can fight back.

There's good news to report from the frontlines of the war on drugs: Fewer young Americans are abusing street drugs. But there's a troubling untackled development – and it's the one you find at your local drugstore and in the homes of teens. More teenagers are using dangerous and addictive prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

To beat back this new front, we have to focus on how, why, and under what conditions teens make their choices. The key is teaching youth how to think, rather than what to think.

The nation's education programs on drug abuse have had success in shaping perceptions of street drugs and those that abuse them. We've seen the use of amphetamines, methamphetamine, and crystal methamphetamine decline significantly.Marijuana use also modestly decreased in 2007. It seems that the message that these street drugs are illegal, dangerous, and potentially deadly has reached teens and had an impact on them. But few are even talking about the risks of abusing prescription drugs.

Education is probably a major factor in the decreased use of these illicit street drugs by teens. However, one of the flaws in many existing programs is that they target specific illegal drugs and instill fear in those who may choose to use them.

But even the programs that take a more positive approach fail to adequately address the underlying issues.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy reported last year that 3 out of 10 teens don't see pain relievers as addictive, and one-third of teens believe that there is "nothing wrong" with occasional abuse of prescription medication. The 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that almost half of the teens who had abused them obtained pain relievers from friends for free. Teens mistakenly believe that misusing prescription drugs is safer than using street drugs.

One possible explanation for this phenomenon is the current proliferation of over-the-counter and prescription drugs used at all levels of our society. The increased use of these medications by parents, role models, and other authority figures sets a tone for teens and shapes their opinions. Another factor that influences teens is accessibility. These drugs are available at their local pharmacy or in the family medicine cabinet. When drugs are legal and readily available, teens see them as trustworthy.

The development and expansion of the survey used by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) over the course of its 33 years further validates the need to broaden the front lines of the drug education battle. NIDA began its "Monitoring the Future" study to survey the use of drugs by 12th- grade students and eventually included 8th- and 10th-graders. Revisions to the survey during the past five years have alerted us to the wider view of drug abuse.

The 2007 survey reported that the proportion of 8th-graders reporting use of an illicit drug at least once in the 12 months prior to the survey has fallen by nearly half. While this is certainly encouraging, we're also facing the more somber news that at least 1 in every 20 highschool seniors has taken OxyContin, a powerful narcotic drug, in the past year. The percentage of students using Vicodin increased with each grade.

Current government education programs are merely shifting teens from illicit street drugs toward prescription and over-the-counter drugs because the latter are more accessible, easier to ingest, legal, and seen as safe when used widely and openly by parents. Authority figures taking drugs should be aware of the impact their use may be having on impressionable youth who surround them. Teens may simply be taking the path of least resistance, both physically and mentally.

So our mission is clear: A focus on the underlying root of the problem.

One strategy is to give teens practice at making difficult decisions under stressful conditions that are similar to real-life situations such as through simulation.

Group role-playing exercises came into favor in the 1980s and '90s because educators embraced the additional engagement and retention that interactivity provided. Great attention must be paid to the context of teens' real life experiences, the stresses and resources at their disposal, and the unique physical and emotional characteristics of this demographic.

We are winning the battle against certain illegal drugs. But if teens are just switching to alternative sources, what have we really gained?

Sharon Sloane, the president of WILL Interactive, an interactive gaming company, is a producer of instructional systems for behavior modification and performance-improvement technology.

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