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Pill Problems

Published: Sun, July 3, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m.


By William K. Alcorn


Parents and grand- parents: Wake up.

Count your pain pills.

Then lock them up.

If you are a capsule or two short at the end of the month, you unwittingly may have helped start your child or grandchild or their friends down the path to prescription-drug abuse or addiction, health officials say.

Prescription-drug abuse and addiction is epidemic in the Mahoning Valley and across the state and nation. Many teens and young adults feed their habit by stealing drugs from the people closest to them — their families.

Next to marijuana, prescription drugs are the country’s most-abused substances involving those 12 and older, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Painkillers such as OxyContin and Percocet, sedatives such as Xanax or Valium, and stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall are most-often abused, said Kenneth Michael Hale, Ph.D., assistant dean and clinical associate professor at the Ohio State University College of Pharmacy.

“We know that about 7,000 people in this country every day start abusing one of these drugs for the first time. About 2,500 of those are teens, 70 percent of whom get the drugs from family or friends,” Hale said.

Experts say prescription-drug addictions cross all social and economic strata.

Last week, Thomas R. Altiere Jr., 32, son of Trumbull County Sheriff Thomas Altiere, pleaded guilty to using deception to obtain prescriptions from multiple doctors and multiple pharmacies.

While working as a security officer at St. Joseph Health Center, Warren, Altiere Jr. left his job to obtain prescriptions and the drug Hydrocodone, another pain medication.

Sheriff Altiere said his son’s painkillers’ addiction occurred after sustaining back-to-back injuries including a broken ankle.

“I just wish the doctors and pharmacists had run checks to see what and how much painkiller he was taking,” the sheriff said. “He didn’t want to become addicted, it just happened.”

So serious is prescription-drug abuse in the state that Gov. John R. Kasich recently signed an executive order authorizing the Ohio Medical Board to establish standards for the state’s pain-management clinics to prevent them from operating as so-called “pill mills.”

Authorities define a pill mill as a place where prescription drugs are sold, often at reduced prices, for nonmedical reasons.

Though it’s a felony in Ohio to obtain controlled substances without a prescription, these medications are today’s drugs of choice chiefly because of the mistaken perception they are safe and legal alternatives to street drugs, Hale said.

In fact, 40 percent of teens in a survey conducted by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, said they believed abusing prescription drugs is much safer than street drugs. That is false, Hale said, adding that an additional 29 percent said they believed prescription painkillers are not addictive, which he said also is not true.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Avon, said prescription-drug abuse is a problem Ohio cannot afford to ignore.

“In recent years, prescription-drug overdoses have killed more Ohioans than car crashes. It’s likely that a teenager who lives on your block, a member of your community, or even a relative uses powerful painkillers, like OxyContin, that have not been prescribed to that person,” he said.

And, as more Ohioans grow addicted to painkillers, unscrupulous people are cashing in on their addictions, Brown said, leading him to introduce the Stop Trafficking of Pills (STOP) Act to eliminate Medicaid fraud.

Lax Medicaid rules make it too easy for people to acquire prescriptions for drugs like oxycodone and morphine from multiple doctors and fill them at multiple pharmacies, Brown said, adding that people who commit Medicaid fraud then sell the extra medications to addicts while taxpayers foot the bill.

Brown urged Florida Gov. Rick Scott to halt his efforts to eliminate Florida’s prescription-drug monitoring program to help keep the flow of illegal prescription drugs out of Ohio.

“The prescription-drug pipeline in Florida supplies Ohio and other states with oxycodone all along the I-75 corridor,” he said.

Health officials urge people who legally receive prescription drugs to be more careful about keeping the drugs out of the wrong hands. Unused medicines should be disposed of properly.

Those who steal prescription drugs aren’t just raiding the family medicine cabinets. They also target the mailboxes of elderly people who receive medication via mail. Others crash real-estate agents’ open houses to rob medicine cabinets.

The abuse of the drugs is almost as creative as the methods used to obtain them.

Teens and young adults are abusing prescription drugs at so-called “pharm parties,” where pills and capsules are put in a bowl and participants take turns taking handfuls of them, Hale said.

Hale said there are numerous layers to solving the problem.

“We need treatment, counseling and law enforcement; but we think there is a dire need for prevention education,” he said.

He added, “In our presentations, we are finding that there is a clear misconception of the safety and legality of using prescription drugs. As a result, we are developing tools to change those perceptions, such as using students for peer-to-peer dialogue.

“These drugs can be good for us. ... We’re living longer and happier. But if they are abused and not used properly, they are really dangerous.”

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