More and More Teens Abusing ADD/ADHD Drugs

Prescription Drug AbuseMost parents believe that they have a very good idea of what to look out for when it comes to substance abuse.  Unexplained absences, regular visits to the ‘shady side’ of town and the development of undesirable friendships all feature high on the list of common warning signs. There is no doubt that it is important to pay attention to these obvious areas of concern. A recent study is showing, however, that parents will have to widen their gaze to include things as seemingly innocuous as the family medicine cabinet or the school gate.

The study conducted by the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (and published in the September issue of the journal Pediatrics) analysed calls by 13- to 19-year-olds to poison control centers between 1998 and 2005. Its findings make for sobering reading to say the least. During the period under review, calls related to teenage ADHD medication increased by 76%. This figure is roughly in line with the staggering increase in prescription rates for these kinds of drugs.  This fact underlines one of the basic problems with the industrial scale medication of a significant proportion of an entire generation.

The basic laws of economics teach us that an increase in the supply of a given product almost inevitably leads to a corresponding increase in demand.  This principle acquires an especially vicious edge when it comes to the abuse of illicit drugs.  Drug dealers create artificial conditions of abundant supply (by supplying free samples) only to then create conditions of scarcity once the addictive properties of the drugs hooked the client. With psycho-stimulant drugs that can be legally bought (at least if you have a prescription) the dynamic is slightly different.  Abundant supply is created by over-prescription which means that increasing numbers of young people who are curious about the effects of narcotics, or who perhaps had previous experience with drug use, will make use of the opportunity to get a ‘legal’ high. At least some of them will be keen to use ADD/ADHD drugs on a regular basis as their drug of choice.  The fact that these drugs can be more or less legally acquired makes them all the more appealing as they are a) easier to get hold of b) cheaper and c) more socially acceptable.

It is a sad situation when something that is supposedly designed to help struggling young people creates the perfect conditions for exposing large numbers of them to dangerous habit forming drugs. The study referenced above confirms that this is not merely a hypothetical danger but that many teenagers are in fact being harmed on a daily basis.  What is even more troubling is that misuse of the most dangerous ADHD/ADD drugs (i.e. those based on amphetamines) are far outstripping rises in prescription rates. This is especially true in the case of Aderall. Anecdotal evidence for the growth in demand for Aderall as one of the drugs of choice on school and college campuses has long been dismissed as hearsay by drug companies. This report shows that these dismissals were nothing more than PR exercises.

Can we really afford to believe the bland reassurances that ADD/ADHD drugs are the best solution for dealing with attention problems in our society?  I believe that simply taking this on good faith is a dangerous position.  We need an honest debate in our society about the effects of drugging so many people over such a long time with such dangerous chemicals.  During this debate close attention will need to be paid to the role of the big drug companies and especially to the huge profits that they are making from their flagship ADD/ADHD products.

No one expects large pharmaceutical companies to be in the business for purely philanthropic reasons.  We all understand that these companies are businesses first and foremost and that they have shareholders to keep happy.  However, most of us would also expect these companies to refrain from chasing after profits at any cost. Especially if this means promoting products that can actively harm some of the most vulnerable members of society. I believe that many companies have crossed this line.

The issues surrounding addiction are but the tip of the iceberg of what I believe to be the harmful societal impact of ADD/ADHD drugs. I will use next week’s article to discuss the reasons why I believe this to be the case.  In the meantime I urge you to tread carefully by refusing to accept the soothing reassurances about the safety and efficacy of these drugs at face value.  Instead, ask probing questions and do some research.  Your findings will surprise and shock you. See you next week!