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The other teen drug problem

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

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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.

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