Guest column, Washington Association of Corporate Counsel
Ryan DePuy was an athletic, affectionate teenager from Bothell, Washington. According to his parents, their soccer-loving son was the last person anyone would expect to experiment with drugs.
Ryan died on April 10, 2008, from a combination of four different prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
I had the honor of meeting Ryan’s parents, Scott and Charlene, last year at the Washington State Youth Prevention Summit. I was moved by their willingness to share their personal tragedy in order to warn young people about the threat of prescription drug abuse.
Shockingly, drug overdoses now outpace car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in Washington state. According to the Washington State Department of Health, 610 people died in vehicle crashes in our state in 2007. The same year, there were 792 unintentional deaths from drug overdoses – the vast majority involving medications commonly found in drugstores and medicine cabinets, such as Vicodin, Oxycontin and Methadone.
Teens tell drug counselors that they’ve abused prescription drugs because they think those drugs are safer than meth, cocaine or heroin. That may be why state Health Department surveys reveal that 12 percent of 12th graders say they use prescription pain medications to get high. Prescription drug abuse is common in lower grades, as well, with significant percentages of 8th graders admitting to experimenting. In other words, past generations of teenagers would raid their parents’ liquor cabinets. Today, kids raid their parents’ medicine cabinets.
Unfortunately, most parents aren’t aware of the threat lurking in their own homes. And most consumers don’t realize that unused medications are often stolen from garbage cans, to be sold or consumed.
“Prescription medication is more readily available than any illegal drug or alcohol,” Scott DePuy writes on his web site, RyansSolution.com. “We have become the dealer of drugs to our children. Not only do teens need to know, but parents need to understand that their prescription medications need to be locked up."
Reducing the number of accidental overdoses of prescription drugs requires a major public education campaign coordinated by the public and private sectors. I’m pleased to report that the effort has already begun. This year, my office joined with the Washington State Pharmacy Association, the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), and others in taking steps to make sure that life-saving medicines aren’t misused. They asked me to record public service announcements that promote the safe disposal of unwanted medicines. Those PSAs are now running on radio stations across the state.
Unused medications need to be taken out of their original containers, put into a nondescript container or sealable plastic bag, crushed and mixed with water and an undesirable substance, such as coffee grounds or kitty litter. That container may then be put in the household trash. Not only does this process strongly reduce the chances of theft, but it also provides a disposal method that prevents medications from being flushed down toilets, where they may end up polluting our waterways.
This public service campaign comes on the heels of PhRMA and CHPA’s impressive work to reach out to consumers via 25,000 safe-drug disposal brochures distributed to pharmacies, senior centers, community centers, patient advocacy groups and beyond. In addition, Bartell Drugs has proactively joined non-profit giants including Group Health Cooperative and government agencies in a groundbreaking drug take-back program that has collected more than 20,000 pounds of unwanted drugs. This program provides specially designed, secure containers located in pharmacies in several locations throughout Western Washington and Spokane. Customers may bring their unused medications to these drop-off points, where they are collected and properly disposed.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Washington residents spend about $3.3 billion a year on prescription medicines. These innovative drugs have innumerable benefits, including alleviating chronic, debilitating pain. Drug companies and distributers should continue to reap the well-deserved financial rewards from developing products that provide such tremendous benefits. But there must also be a sense of responsibility for some of the unintended consequences that result from the proliferation of these products. The effective, growing alliances between the pharmaceutical industry, law enforcement and government agencies are a positive sign those that those that produce life-saving medications are increasingly willing to make sure those products aren’t dangerously misused. I look forward to building on these partnerships in the coming months and years as we work to sharply reduce drug overdoses.
The story of Ryan DePuy and the inspiring work being done by his parents was at the forefront of my mind as I talked with young people who gathered in Grand Mound, Washington on April 30. The Youth Spring Forum, planned by my office and the DSHS Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse, was a follow up to last year’s Washington State Prevention Summit, where teens learned to use the latest technology to create prevention programs in their schools. This year more than 300 teens came together to share concepts for implementing that technology in new school-based prevention programs. Their bright smiles, bristling energy and inventive ideas were a reminder of our common goal: safe, happy futures for today’s teens.