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Pharm Parties: Fact or Fiction?

By Hugh C. McBride

With prescription medication rapidly becoming the substance of choice for many teenage drug users, concern is growing about gatherings in which teens encourage each other to take multiple doses of unknown pills.

A front-page article in the June 13, 2006 edition of USA Today gave widespread exposure to the concept of "pharm parties" ("pharm" being short for "pharmaceuticals"), at which teens contribute to and partake of "bowls and baggies of random pills" that have been procured via a wide range of clandestine - and often illegal - methods.

The article quoted Carol Falkowski, director of research communications for the Hazelden Foundation, who noted that "five million kids take prescription drugs every day for behavior disorders," and added that "it's not unusual for kids to share pills with their friends." Pharm parties, Falkowski told Today reporter Donna Leinwand, are "simply everyone pooling whatever pills they have together and having a good time on a Saturday night."

The Risk Is Real
According to the Partnership for a Drug Free America, the abuse of prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medication is an "entrenched behavior" among American teens. The group's most recent survey of teen drug behavior, the 2005 Partnership Attitude Tracking study, revealed the following trends:

  • Nearly 19 percent of American teenagers have engaged in the recreational use of prescription medication (pain relievers such as Vicodin and OxyContin or stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall) in an attempt to get high.
  • Ten percent of teens surveyed said they have abused cough medicine to get high.
  • Teens are abusing prescription and OTC medications at a rate that is equal to or greater than their use of Ecstasy, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin.
In a May 15, 2006 news release that is posted on the Partnership's website, the organization's president said the group's findings "should serve as a wake-up call to parents that their teen is facing a drug landscape that did not exist when they were teens." Steve Pasierb, who has led the Partnership since June 2001, said, "We have a situation where a widespread and dangerous teen behavior has become normalized and has found its way into our homes. Unless we all take action, it is a problem that will only get worse."

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is among the experts who share Pasierb's concern about the dangers faced by teens who misuse prescription and OTC medications.

"I want to remind young people, their parents, and others that even though prescription drugs are medications, their improper use can have serious consequences," Volkow wrote in a "Message from the Director" on the NIDA website. Among the risks of these drugs, Volkow noted, is that "when taken inappropriately [they] can cause addiction, for they act on the same places in the brain as does heroin."

How Prevalent is "Pharming"?
Though Time magazine has described pharm parties as "a growing trend among teenage drug abusers," there is little statistical information on how often these events actually occur. Jack Shafer, a columnist for the online magazine Slate, has written three articles wondering whether the "trend" is more myth than menace.

"I don't dispute that some teens might be throwing pharm parties. Given the abundance of pharmaceuticals, I'd be astonished if some aren't gathering right now in a suburban basement and doing and sharing drugs - as they have for decades. But are pharm parties a trend? ... USA Today doesn't produce the proof." (Slate, June 15, 2006)
As Shafer indicates in the excerpt above from his first article on the topic, he doesn't doubt that teens are abusing prescription and OTC medications - he's simply questioning the degree to which pharm parties have permeated today's youth culture. Shafer, who has found references to pharm parties in articles dating to 2002, writes that his concern as a reporter is that only one of the pieces he has read (in the Aug. 1, 2005 edition of Time) involves a reporter who has either attended a pharm party or directly interviewed a person who has.

Shafer bolsters his concern that media reports may be overstating the popularity of pharming by quoting an e-mail from Richard Rawson of the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, who wrote, "I have heard rumors of pharm parties for about three years and have seen reports on the Web. However, I have never spoken with an actual kid who has ever actually attended one of these events. I have no doubt that kids are using/abusing prescription drugs and this is concerning, but about these parties, they make a good story."

Parents Advised to Remain Vigilant
Regardless of whether children and teens are taking drugs at organized events or in informal gatherings, there is little doubt that the abuse of prescription and OTC medication is becoming increasingly popular among American youth. The challenge for parents is to remain aware and vigilant, and to continue to educate themselves about the various means by which young people may be putting themselves at risk with prescription and OTC drugs.

Unfortunately, drug use among teenagers is neither a new dilemma nor a fading threat. But a wealth of resources is available to help parents make the best possible decisions about raising healthy, drug-free children. As the Drug Rehab Treatment site advises, "Parents should remember that addiction is an illness. When a person is sick, family members who take action and offer support can often make the difference between recovery and death. The faster a parent can identify any symptoms, the faster they can take action to help their child."