One in 10 teens -- that's more than 2.4 million young people -- reports abusing over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicines to get high. With most parents unaware of this behavior, that begs the question: where are teens finding out about this type of drug abuse? For years, the answer has been either through their peers or online. But this fall, there's a new force in the promotion of OTC cough medicine abuse: primetime, network television.
Just last week, FOX's hit drama House, became the second show this fall to portray OTC cough medicine abuse, joining another FOX blockbuster, Glee. Both shows depict characters taking excessive amounts of OTC cough medicines to get high off of the active ingredient, dextromethorphan (DXM). And both shows failed to accurately depict the dangers of this type of abuse.
A mid-September episode of Glee featured a former shop teacher who abuses OTC cough medicine, the consequences of which are shown to be humorous and the act itself depicted as trivial. While the recent episode of House took a more serious look at cough medicine abuse through a character who abuses the medicine in an attempt to escape his reality, the episode ends with the patient being allowed to continue his abusive behavior.
House and Glee are raising awareness that OTC cough medicine abuse occurs -- they even show some of the negative consequences of this behavior. But what these shows fail to mention is that cough medicine abuse is a highly dangerous practice that involves teens taking up to 25-50 times the recommended dose, which when mixed with other drugs or alcohol, can not only be dangerous, but sometimes even deadly.
By depicting this type of abuse without accurately demonstrating the dangers of this behavior, these shows run the risk of perpetuating the problem among their teen viewers. Research indicates that a teen's likelihood to abuse drugs is directly related to their perception of risk, and recent studies show that teens' perception of risk related to drugs and alcohol are already softening. When popular culture (in this case network television) portrays OTC cough medicine abuse or any substance as low-risk, the abuse itself becomes normalized and may be more enticing to teens.
The Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents the makers of these medicines, have been hard at work trying to raise the perception of risk among parents and teens in order to prevent the abuse of OTC cough medicines. Together, we implore parents to educate themselves on the issue of teen cough medicine abuse and use these television series as an opportunity to discuss a rather serious issue with their teens. After all, research indicates that teens whose parents talk to them about the dangers of drug abuse are half as likely to abuse drugs.
For more information on cough medicine abuse, including warning signs, ways to prevent this behavior, and tips for talking with your teens, visit StopMedicineAbuse.org. And if you think your teen may have an immediate problem, visit timetoact.drugfree.org. Most importantly, the next time you're watching television with your teen and the issue of OTC cough medicine abuse is raised, use this as an opportunity to set the record straight: cough medicine abuse is not just a television plotline -- it's a serious issue with serious consequences.