Last week, a group of health care professionals, human service providers, law enforcement officers and school nurses gathered to talk about prescription drug abuse in our community. When there is a community-wide problem the first thing that usually happens is that a bunch of people come together to talk. So that means we are in the early stages of dealing with this problem in our community.
This is not the first time this issue has been aired publicly but the meeting, sponsored by the Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition, marked the near-beginning of a process that will hopefully produce results. It will not be a quick fix because this problem has been with us for awhile and the root causes run deep and wide.
Consider the fact that the United States and New Zealand are the only two countries that allow direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs. When a population is continually bombarded with drug ads that tell a person their life will be better if they take a pill, eventually they begin to believe it.
The more ads for pills they see and hear the more they will change their mindset so that they will expect that there is a pill to deal with every problem. In the 1950s there were pills that were advertised as "mother's little helper" to help overworked stay-at-home mothers to get through the day. The drug was Miltown (generic meprobamate) and it created a market of mothers who came to believe that life would be intolerable
Wallace Laboratories, the drug manufacturer, went so far as to advertise Miltown as something mothers could use so that, "Pregnancy can be made a happier experience." It turned out that Miltown causes an increased risk of birth defects and it is able to pass into mother's milk.
Direct to consumer advertising has continued with a vengeance. We do have better warnings about side effects and dangers.
In perhaps what has come to be the most absurd and troubling ads in the 21st century are the prime-time television barrage of ads for pills that have turned male erections into one of the biggest marketing tools ever. It would not be absurd for the Pfizer pharmaceutical company to display a statute of an erect penis in front of their headquarters. After all, they owe a lot of their profits to it.
The more we are immersed in this kind of advertising the more we come to believe that pills of any kind are simply a way to make life better. Certainly this is true for many people. Some of the newer drugs for high blood pressure and many other chronic diseases have decreased pain and suffering for millions of people.
One of the more troubling trends that was discussed at the meeting last week was that high school students, as well as younger kids, have grown up in this "pill culture" and they look to pills whenever they have a little ache or pain or when something isn't the way they think it should be.
Instead of learning that aches and pain and bumps and bruises are a part of life that will be around as long as they are breathing and that there are many ways to deal with them, their first reaction is to look for a pill to solve the problem.
Too many people in our society have lost the ability to keep minor aches and pains and the troubles of daily life in perspective. They have found a quick fix in drugs such as Vicodin and Oxycontin as well as Adderall and Ritalin. When used appropriately these drugs can be useful, but when they are self-prescribed and sold on the street they become a new kind of poison.
All of these drugs are readily available in too many people's medicine cabinets and that is why so many young people find them appealing. A visit to grandma's can mean a week of getting high or a little added income.
Our culture needs to change and we have to realize that this problem will not go away any time soon. More talk among community members will help and the more we educate people about the abuse problem, about the need for cultural changes and how to make it harder for young people to access these drugs the better off we all will be.
We should not make those who truly benefit from these drugs suffer because of the people who choose to abuse them, especially when it comes to the treatment of chronic pain. That is why I think we should bring together as many medical and mental health professionals as we can and have them talk about ways our community can develop a unified plan to provide the best care for people with chronic pain.
That would mean that instead of the quick-fix pain prescription for long-standing back pain a person might go to a local pain clinic or see a specialist for a complete evaluation so that their pain and related problems could be dealt with in a comprehensive way.
We can make this kind of care a reality. Let's give it a try.
Richard Davis is a registered nurse and executive director of Vermont Citizens Campaign for Health. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at email@example.com.