Press Box

Stupid Drug Story of the Week

USA Today takes the prize.

USA Today takes pride, as it should, in its policy of keeping anonymous sources to an absolute minimum. If only the paper were as rigorous and vigilant in presenting data, rather than wishful thinking, when it attempts to document a new “trend.”

Its most recent offending piece is Donna Leinwand’s Page One June 13 article, which carries this headline and very long subhead:

Prescription Drugs Find Place in Teen Culture“Pharm parties” reflect a new world of drug abuse—and introduce a dangerous misperception: Pharmaceuticals are “safer.”

Has there been any year in the last 40 years—or before—that wise parents didn’t keep their painkillers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and other licit pharmaceuticals locked up lest their children or their children’s friends loot the medicine cabinet? Hell, a high-school friend of mine used to break into drug stores to steal Ritalin and other prescription drugs.

Now, it could be that teens doping themselves with pharmaceuticals is a growing trend, and that pharm parties do reflect a new world of drug abuse. Indeed, if a reporter marshaled convincing evidence, I would be prepared to accept the proposition. But nowhere in Leinwand’s hugely anecdotal piece does she substantiate such a trend or shift in consumption patterns. She merely asserts it, or quotes sources who say it’s so.

The data she does provide, in an info box, fails to make her point. Titled “Teen Drug Use Shifts,” it cites the well-respected Monitoring the Future data on high-school drug use to report that 4.0 percent of 12th-graders said they used the painkiller OxyContin in 2002, and 5.5 percent of 12th-graders said they did in 2005. This contrasts with the percentage of students who’d used Vicodin, another prescription pain-killer. The figure dropped from 9.6 percent to 9.5 percent. Additional MTF data quoted by USA Today finds cocaine use for the same age group essentially unchanged (5.0 percent to 5.1 percent), marijuana use slightly down (36.2 percent to 33.6 percent) and Ecstasy down from 7.4 percent to 3.0 percent.

Trend or no trend? You make the call.

The story’s sexy lede tells USA Today readers about “pharm parties,” social gatherings where teens assemble to revel as they consume licit pharmaceuticals. Does Leinwand report witnessing a pharm party? No. Does she interview a cop who broke one up? No. Cite a police blotter? No. Does she even interview a teen who claims to have attended a pharm party? No.

Her pharm party sources are 1) an Omaha drug abuse counselor who says her teenage clients say they’ve attended such parties; 2) other drug counselors “across the USA”; 3) Carol Falkowski, the communications director for the Hazelden Foundation drug treatment center; and 4) a statement in a National Institute of Drug Abuse bulletin that said pharm parties were a “troubling trend.” No data is offered, no eyewitness.

The Hazelden Foundation’s Falkowski says pharm parties are “simply everyone pooling whatever pills they have together and having a good time on a Saturday night. Kids … don’t think about the consequences.” [Ellipses in the original.]

The piece reports the deaths of two young people from the use of pharmaceuticals, but it doesn’t connect either of their deaths to the “troubling” pharm party “trend.” The mother of one of the deceased youths says her son “was not the first kid to die in this neighborhood from prescription drugs.” Okay, who else died in the neighborhood? USA Today doesn’t say.

The data Leinwand presents doesn’t really advance her thesis of pharm parties “across the USA” or of a grand increase in the recreational use of pharmaceuticals by teens. She writes that a government study shows that “Overdoses of prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugsaccounted for about one-quarter of the 1.3 million drug-related emergency room admissions in 2004. …”

But because her story is about “pharm parties” and “rising abuse of prescription drugs by teens and young adults,” this statistic doesn’t help her case: It doesn’t break out ER admission of teens or young adults from the 1.3 million total admissions and it includes nonprescription drugs. I also wonder: How many of these drug-related ER admissions were suicide attempts and had nothing to do with partying on drugs?

Still, Leinwand believes in the trend, writing:

The abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs—which barely registered a blip in drug-use surveys a decade ago—is escalating at what Falkowski and other analysts say is an alarming rate.

Note how once again Leinwand blurs the definitional boundary to include over-the-counter drugs in a story that’s primarily about prescription drugs. Where was the editor? At a morning-glory-seed party sponsored by the Washington Post? Leinwand blurs age categories, too. The story starts out being about teens and youths, at least twice it expands to include young adults without defining them, then slips back to being about teens.

What potentially persuasive statistics does Leinwand present? She cites a 2005 survey by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America—an anti-drug propaganda group—that states that 19 percent of U.S. teenagers have taken prescription painkillers or stimulants to get high. No word from her on whether that figure is up or down.

Leinwand accepts the anecdotal evidence that kids might be consuming more Ritalin and Adderall recreationally today than in past years. That’s possible because more is prescribed today, and it’s logical that some of it would be diverted. But she doesn’t muster data from the Monitoring the Future survey or elsewhere to illustrate such an increase.

Monitoring the Future indicates no great changes in recent total drug use. In 1996, 50.8 percent of surveyed 12th-graders said they’d used an illicit drug in their lifetimes. That figure rose to 54.7 percent in 1999 and dropped to 50.4 percent in 2005. If you look at the numbers for illicit drug use among 12th-graders in the last 30 days, you find that use peaked in 1997 at 26.2 percent and fell to 23.1 percent in 2005.

MTF finds that annual use of Ritalin—one of the alleged pharm party drugs—by 12th-graders dropped from 5.1 percent in 2001 to 4.4 percent today (see Page 55 of this pdf).

Trend or no trend? You make the call.

I don’t dispute that some teens might be throwing pharm parties. Given the abundance of pharmaceuticals, I’d be astonished if some aren’t gathering right now in a suburban basement and doing and sharing drugs—as they have for decades. But are pharm parties a trend? Are more teens getting zonked on pharmaceuticals than ever before? USA Today doesn’t produce the proof.

None of this is to suggest, as some of my e-mail correspondents will inevitably charge, that I advocate a healthy diet of prescription painkillers and stimulants for teens, or that I believe drugs are safe or innocuous, or that parents need not worry about their kids getting stoned.

Instead, I counsel parents to seek nonhysterical information about drugs so that when they discuss the subject with their children they won’t be laughed out of the room. Parents who rely on USA Today for their drug info should prepare themselves for the humiliation that comes with snorts of derision.

Addendum, June 19: See the sequel to this story.


UCLA drug policy scholar Mark A.R. Kleiman gives me the business for what I wrote yesterday about a meth study. Send additional scorn, praise, and bus tokens to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Earthlink folks: Turn your spam filters off if you want me to write back.)