2009-10-21 / Front Page

Pill popping is up

Abuse of medications among Chesterfield County teens is higher than the national average
By Katherine Houstoun

Meg Driggs (left) and Mary Page Shinholser watch a video clip about teen drug abuse during a town hall meeting last week. Lisa Billings/Chesterfield ObserverMeg Driggs (left) and Mary Page Shinholser watch a video clip about teen drug abuse during a town hall meeting last week. Lisa Billings/Chesterfield Observer A capful of Robitussin cough syrup may seem innocuous enough, but tip back the bottle, and you’ll attain a high similar to that of Ecstasy – a dangerous practice that is alarmingly common among Chesterfield teens.

“In 2007, we discovered that the rate of prescription drug abuse among high school seniors [in Chesterfield County] was about 40 percent higher than the national average,” said Wayne Frith, the executive director of Substance Abuse Free Environment (SAFE), a community coalition addressing alcohol and drug issues in Chesterfield County. “That’s particularly troubling because prescription drug abuse is the fastest growing problem nationwide, so if you’re 40 percent higher than the national average of the fastest growing drug problem, then you’ve got a problem.”

Last week, SAFE brought together community members from across Virginia at a town hall meeting to discuss the dangerous trend of teens abusing medicine to get high. More than 100 people, including lawmakers, parents, educators, law-enforcement officials and health-care professionals, gathered at Bon Air Baptist Church for the two-hour seminar, which was funded by the Community Anti- Drug Coalitions of America and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), a group representing leading manufacturers and distributors of nonprescription medicines and supplements.

While most illicit drug abuse is on the decline, the abuse of medicines, specifically overthe counter (OTC) and prescription drugs, is increasing. According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, an estimated one in 10 people, ages 12-17, or 2.4 million kids, has intentionally abused cough medicine to get high. On average, the abuse starts between the ages of 12 and 13. While many teens believe OTC medicines and prescription drugs are safer than illicit street drugs like cocaine and heroine – after all, they’re legal – the opposite is actually true.

“It’s the fastest growing drug problem in the United States,” said Frith. “It kills more teens than cocaine, heroine and methamphetamine combined.”

Teens commonly are seeking out dextromethorphan (DXP), an active ingredient in more than 100 OTC cough and cold medicines, to create euphoric and psychedelic effects. But they don’t stop there, said presenter Elizabeth Funderburk, a spokesperson for CHPA.

“Teens aren’t just taking a little bit more than they should,” she said. “We’re finding that they are taking 25 to 50 times more than the recommended dose of these medicines and regularly combining it with prescription drugs and chasing it with alcohol. Teens are in serious trouble when this happens.”

Some are participating in “pharm parties,” in which various pills are dumped into a bowl and partygoers swallow random handfuls. The combination of various drugs can cause catastrophic damage to the liver and ultimately lead to overdose and death. Unfortunately, the Internet is a gold mine of information for drug abusers: YouTube videos show kids getting high on OTC medicines and Web sites allow users to enter their height and weight to find out how much medicine is needed to get high. Education is key to prevention, said Funderburk.

“Kids who regularly hear about the dangers of drug abuse from their parents are half as likely to abuse drugs,” she said, suggesting teens and parents visit the Web site www. for real-life stories from OTC drug abusers. “The other really powerful tool is peer-to-peer discussions.”

While the meeting called attention specifically to teen medicine abuse, it also highlighted drug abuse and addiction among adults, including the elderly.

“We call addiction the equal opportunity destroyer,” said psychiatrist Dr. Martin Buxton, who spoke at the meeting. “The illness is not segregated to the poor, the rich, the smart, the not-so-smart. It’s in every segment of society.”

To tackle the issue of medicine abuse, SAFE has established a Proper Use of Legal Products (PULP) Task Force, which Frith hopes will help unite organizations to advocate prevention, treatment and recovery. The town hall served as the public awareness kickoff to the initiative. For more information and to join the effort, visit, and

SAFE advocates “Three Ts” to prevent medicine abuse:

TAKE an inventory of all medication in the house. If you’re not currently using a medication, get rid of it. 

TALK to family members and loved ones about how to use medicines properly.

TARGET a local organization to join to help change the national and local trend of medicine abuse.

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