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Campaign Aims to Shame Kids Abusing OxyContin

Drug manufacturer uses language teenagers are more likely to listen to

FRIDAY, Nov. 16, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- A new ad campaign by the maker of the painkiller OxyContin hopes to end prescription drug abuse by young people by aiming squarely at what they fear most: embarrassment and ostracism.

Purdue Pharma L.P. is betting that gross-out messages on "spastic shaking," "projectile vomiting" and "explosive diarrhea" will get teens to stop abusing OxyContin as well as other prescription medications.

The "Painfully Obvious" campaign -- the nation's first to target the abuse of a prescription drug -- gets the message to middle and high school teens that they're at risk for humiliation and isolation as well as addiction, overdose and death. Purdue has partnered with the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) to distribute the program to 5,400 CADCA member organizations nationwide.

"This certainly is in reaction to the abuse of OxyContin," says James Heins, a spokesman for Purdue Pharma, which is based in Stamford, Conn. "But it is also aimed at the larger and under-recognized problem of prescription drug abuse, which predates the introduction or abuse of OxyContin."

OxyContin, a formulation of oxycodone hydrochloride, is prescribed for moderate to severe pain associated with cancer, chronic pain or serious injury. Available in four strengths, the drug has been formulated as a controlled-release tablet. Its pain-relieving effect lasts up to 12 hours -- making it longer-lasting and stronger than other oxycodone products. Some 5.8 million prescriptions for OxyContin were filled in 2000, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

In recent years, however, OxyContin has also become a popular club and street drug. Abusers crush the pills, which defeats the controlled-release delivery system and causes a rapid rush of dopamine to the brain, according to Purdue.

Earlier this month, the DEA reported that OxyContin was responsible for 110 overdose deaths and was the prime suspect in another 172 deaths over the past year. It was the first time the federal agency focused on the abuse of a brand-name drug.

And in April, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) said that an estimated 9 million people over the age of 12 used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons in 1999; more than a quarter of them said they had recreationally used prescription drugs for the first time in 1998.

Heins says "Painfully Obvious" is a new addition to the company's "multi-faceted plan to try and curb prescription drug abuse while insuring that patients with pain have appropriate access to prescriptions medicines that can alleviate their suffering."

After broadcasting a series of radio public service announcements in four regions around the country early in 2001, "we started looking around for a national program that addressed prescription drug abuse, with the idea of simply providing a grant. However, we didn't find any national drug curricula that addressed the problem," Heins says.

So Purdue developed one.

"Painfully Obvious" is a Web site that uses a series of gross-out, attention-grabbing messages laced with offbeat humor designed to attract teens, Heins says.

Scrolling messages on the site proclaim why prescription drug abuse is bad, along with more general ideas that hope to get a "Well, duh!" response from teenagers. "Rubbing tuna fish in your armpits does not make a deodorant," for example, is interspersed with "Explosive diarrhea caused by prescription drug abuse ruins pants." And the serious and tongue-in-cheek are combined with one message: "Dead people are no fun."

The site also provides information for parents on how to recognize signs of prescription drug abuse, as well as resources for community leaders on what teens believe about drugs. A pilot radio campaign will be test-marketed in four regions -- Philadelphia, Cincinnati, southern Virginia, and West Palm Beach, Fla.

"'Painfully Obvious' is a good idea if it's done right," says Howard Simon, associate director of public affairs for the Partnership For A Drug-Free America. "We've seen from our own work that you can change the attitudes and behavior of kids. But you really have to have messages crafted by people who understand the consumer marketplace. Information just can't be information; it has to be persuasive information."

The Partnership for A Drug-Free America doesn't have a program focused on prescription drug abuse. "Our focus from the word 'go' has been the illegal drug issue," explains Simon. "Given the scope of the drug problem in the late [19]80s, when we came into being, when cocaine was being seen as a monstrously abused drug, the focus was to go after drugs that were illegal and try to change attitudes."

"We think this is a good program," says Keyona King, director of research for Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. "It's a useful program, and it delivers a very strong message. But you have to realize that the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs is not uniform across the country. Solutions to the problem need to be diverse. Each community is going to have to make a decision on how they want to use Purdue Pharma's program."

What To Do

If you'd like to take a look at the campaign, visit Painfully Obvious. And if you'd like more information on prescription drug abuse, check out the NIDA.

SOURCES: Interviews with James Heins, associate director of public affairs, Purdue Pharma L.P., Stamford, Conn.; Howard Simon, associate director of public affairs, Partnership For A Drug-Free America, New York; Keyona King, director of research, Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, Alexandria, Va.; Purdue Pharma press release; "Painfully Obvious" Web site
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