U.S. schools turn to new programs to warn teens of drug risks

Mon Feb 9, 2015 7:22am EST
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By Laila Kearney

DOWNINGTOWN, Pa. (Reuters) - The desperate cry of a mother finding her 17-year-old son dead from a painkiller and another prescription drug instantly silences hundreds of Pennsylvania high school students who listen to her 911 call played at an early morning assembly.

That recording, played as the roughly 500 students look at an urn holding the dead boy's ashes and photos of dozens of other teens who died of overdoses, is the gut-punch that anchors a new educational program aimed at combating the rising abuse of prescription opioid abuse among U.S. young adults.

"All these kids were around our age, said Michael Senn, an 18-year-old senior at the school Downingtown High School East, after the program. "It felt personal."

Senn and his classmates had just sat through a presentation by Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education, or NOPE, one of a handful of prevention programs cropping up around the United States offering high school and middle school students education about prescription opiate painkillers.

The new programs, launching in Pennsylvania and Illinois, come as concerns grow that the drugs, accounting for 71 percent of all prescription drug overdose deaths, are drawing younger and more suburban users.

Nationwide, prescription opioids caused more than 16,000 deaths across all ages in 2013, a 50 percent increase from three years before, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Law enforcement officials say that abuse of the drugs has also contributed to a spike in heroin usage and deaths from heroin overdoses as some opiod users switch to the cheaper narcotic.

In an approach that experts say may be more effective than generalized anti-drug curricula of the past, the new programs target painkillers, a narcotic of choice for teenagers.

Developers of the programs emphasize the of use lengthy studies and interactive computer programs and focus on the science of addiction instead of scare tactics widely used in Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign of the 1980s and 1990s.   Continued...

A school bus used for transporting New York City public school students is seen parked in front of a school in the Queens borough of New York January 15, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton