05/08/2013 12:52 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2013

Solving the Prescription Drug Misuse Tragedy

An addiction scientist named Tom McLellan told me that he was once visiting one of America's top colleges, sitting in the office of the school's president, who was bemoaning the fact that he was losing a student or two a year to drug overdoses. Indeed, there's been a dramatic up-tick - triple the number from four years ago - in the number of college-age kids showing up in the nation's emergency rooms for overdoses on pain pills. In fact, these days, the number-one killer of America's young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 isn't car accidents. It's overdoses. And the majority of those are ODs on prescription medications.

No matter how many times I hear parents' stories they don't get easier to bear. Last evening I spoke to the mom of a boy who, at a college party on Friday night, took OxyContin and Xanax, washing them down with beer. He blacked out. By the time paramedics arrived, her son was near death. Today he's in a coma. His mother was calling from his bedside. "I'm waiting for the doctor," she said. "They don't think he'll make it. I don't know what to wish for. If he lives, he'll probably be brain dead." Through tears she added, "He was home for Sunday dinner last week. He was so alive."

Studies have shown that a large majority of teenagers view pharmaceuticals as safer than street drugs. (They aren't.) They believe prescription medications aren't addictive or fatal, but they often are. OxyContin, a widely abused drug, can cause heart attacks because it relaxes heart valves and allows blood to "backflow," leading to an overabundance of blood in the ventricle or atrium. You hear of addicts' hearts exploding? It's when the heart pushes the excess blood out at such a force that it tears the aorta. Prescription opiates also slow breathing. Or stop it. Mix pills with alcohol - and most kids who take them do (pill-and-booze parties are common) - and the risk of overdose increases. And there's another common effect of pain-pill misuse: OxyContin, Vicodin, and similar opiates are expensive and sometimes hard to find, so many users gravitate to what can be a cheaper and more accessible opiate: heroin.

For years we've tried to prevent our kids from using these and other drugs, and yet college-age kids use more than any other age group. Maybe it's not surprising that these young adults are so vulnerable. The transition to adulthood has always been a challenging time as kids grow up. Psychologist Charles Garfield says that at least some young adults' dangerous behavior, including their drug taking, is a result of stress they're under at a "death-sensitive" time in their lives. "So much is being lost - childhood, safety, and protection of their parents. And then there are looming adult responsibilities." We consider these kids to be grown up - they can vote at 18, drink alcohol in most states at 21 - and they expect it of themselves, but deep down at least some of them are terrified. Then we throw them into an environment in schools or the workforce where binge drinking and drug taking are common, almost expected. No wonder our prevention efforts have failed.

The college president Dr. McLellan was speaking to said that he had resigned himself to the overdose deaths on his campus. He said that the college had tried to address the problem, but every weekend students were being taken to the emergency room. And some were dying in spite of their efforts. He bemoaned that drug use had become an accepted part of the culture on college campuses, including his. McLellan responded, "What would you do if there was a sniper on your campus murdering one student a year? You wouldn't accept it as a given. You wouldn't rest until you caught him."

There is a sniper taking the lives of our children and we must stop it. To do so, we must tackle the problem of prescription-drug misuse in a new way. The Clinton Foundation's newly announced commitment to take this problem on is a profoundly significant step forward. Through the Clinton Health Matters Initiative, the Foundation is committed to combating the nation's chronic prescription drug-abuse problem by the beginning of the next decade. It has also committed to helping those misusing prescription drugs get on a safer, healthier path. In order to dramatically lower drug use in this age group, those leading the Initiative have rejected the failed approaches of the past and are instead pursueing best-practice strategies. They include a Prescription Safe Campus program; prescription drug abuse prevention and treatment support integrated into workplace wellness efforts, and a program that will improve the supply and affordability of Naloxone/narcan, drugs that can reverse an overdose - just to start.

It's a tragedy that we're losing so many young adults because of drug use. If this were an unsolvable problem it would remain that: sad and terrible. But it is solvable. Prescription-medication misuse is preventable. The sniper can be caught.

To read more about the Clinton Foundation's work, visit their blog at

Help the Clinton Foundation take action on prescription drug abuse and misuse and contact us with your Pledge to Action at