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Prescription Painkillers Mixed With Alcohol: A Deadly Mix

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On Dec. 19, 2011 a 28-year-old graduate student at the George Washington University went to sleep and never woke up. Earlier that night, Benjamin Gupta mixed a prescription painkiller with alcohol. It was a mistake that cost him his life.

By all accounts, Ben Gupta was smart, motivated and much-liked -- someone with a passion for public service. The Omaha, Neb. native had worked under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a coordinator for the State Department's Global Partnership Initiative. He also served in 2007 as a staff assistant for then-Congressman Rahm Emanuel.

Ben was dedicated to completing his graduate studies, but he never got the chance when he took oxycodone, a prescription painkiller, and then an alcoholic drink. Ben Gupta's blood alcohol level was just .04 the night of his death, far below the legal limit. Yet the mixture killed him.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly three out of four prescription drug overdoses are caused by the same kind of opioid painkillers that Ben Gupta took on that fateful night. Drug overdose rates in the United States have more than tripled since 1990, paralleling an astounding 300 percent increase in sales of these prescription painkillers.

As a pediatrician and as the dean of the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, I am speaking out in the hopes that all of us can work together to reduce these accidental overdoses that occur not just on college campuses but in towns, cities and rural areas all across the country.

Non-medical use of prescription drugs occurs far too often on campus and in society at large. For example, we know that students sometimes take prescription stimulants to stay focused during exams or to pull all-night study sessions.

Prescription drugs are safe when taken as directed, but all drugs can trigger side effects. And drugs like oxycodone come with a very thin margin for error. Oxycodone is a central nervous system depressant and when taken with alcohol can slow a person's breathing to the point that it stops. Sadly, that is what happened to Ben Gupta.

At a conference held last spring at the George Washington University, former President Clinton spoke out on this rising epidemic, urging students to spread the word about the dangers of mixing prescription drugs and alcohol. Clinton, who knew Benjamin Gupta personally, said that students who spoke out or text message others about the risk might end up "saving a very large number of lives."

There's no doubt that students can be a powerful force for change. I hope that they took President Clinton's message to heart and that they are spreading the word on social media and on campuses all over the country. Additionally, high schools and colleges across our nation need to be aware of this growing threat and the need to educate students about the dangers of prescription drug misuse along with excessive drinking and illegal drug abuse. But we all have a role to play in addressing this growing public health problem -- one that extends far beyond the college campus.

President Obama recently weighed in with a plan that calls for better education about the risks of prescription drug abuse for students, parents, teachers and even doctors and other health professionals. Giving students and others the facts, coupled with tough rules and penalties for drug and alcohol abuse, would go a long way toward reducing risky behavior. The president's plan would shut down the open-door clinics or drug mills that offer easy access to these powerful drugs. And it encourages people to properly dispose of any unused painkillers or other prescription drugs that can easily find their way from a home medicine cabinet to a college party.

Additionally, the CDC has proposed ways to improve prescribing and treatment with opioid pain relievers, ranging from simple approaches like restricting the numbers of doses per prescription to more complex ones that restrict access to opioid drugs for high-risk patients.

Ben Gupta, according to those who knew him best, didn't think his occasional use of oxycodone posed a problem. And he had no idea that mixing this drug with even a small amount of alcohol could be fatal. He was, at the time of his death, well on his way to graduating in a few months with a joint law and business degree. He had everything to live for, yet his life was cut short by a preventable mistake.

We owe it to Ben Gupta, his family, and others just like him, to put a stop to these senseless deaths.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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