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Prescription drug abuse tragedies impact many as epidemic continues

Advocates call for better education, legislation

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 15 2012 8:19 p.m. MDT

Phil Bauer with his son Mark who died at 18 as a result of prescription drug abuse.

Courtesy of Phil Bauer

The May 2004 morning that Pennsylvania residents Phil and Cookie Bauer will never forget began like so many others. It normally took everything and then some to get their 18-year-old son, Mark Bauer, out of bed in the morning. His mother, Cookie, would often resort to sprinkling water on her son's face just to get the athletic 5-foot-9 teenager up and moving.

This morning was different.

Phil was getting ready for work downstairs as usual when he heard his wife's screams. He raced upstairs where Cookie told him she could not wake their son.

"He was lying on his bed looking very peaceful," Phil Bauer said. "There was no pulse and he wasn't breathing. It was frankly quite an out-of-body experience. I can't describe what that feeling is like."

Phil began CPR on his son as Cookie called the police, who rushed over to take Mark to the hospital. Despite their efforts, Mark was pronounced dead.

"His life ended that day, and life as we knew it (also) ended that day," Phil Bauer said. "A week before his high-school graduation he never woke up."

In their son's room, the Bauers found a sandwich bag full of oxycodone and acetaminophen pills, both prescription drugs.

"I had no clue he was abusing this," Bauer said. "We learned the hard way."

Bauer now tours the country and lectures parents and kids about the dangers of abusing legal drugs. He is on the parent advisory board at The Partnership at Drugfree.org and is a national advocate for prescription drug safety. Unfortunately, what happened to the Bauer family is even more common today than it was eight years ago.

Studies have found that prescription painkillers and stimulants are becoming the nation's biggest drug problem. Reports indicate painkiller abuse is on the rise and that painkillers pose a bigger threat today than some illegal drugs like cocaine. The problem is now more deadly than car crashes, and 2,100 kids daily engage in the behavior for the first time, according to one expert. Recent legislation was introduced by Pennsylvania and Alaska senators to try and curtail the abuse of cough medicine among teens, but that addresses only one facet of a larger issue. Experts say it might be necessary to reexamine which drugs are legal and how easily they are prescribed and accessible to patients.

"We have a very laissez-faire attitude toward our medicines," said Steve Pasierb, CEO and president of The Partnership at Drugfree.org. "People often keep medicine in the kitchen next to the cereal, but everybody says 'it's not me.' This is a problem uniquely of our own making."

Recognition of a problem

A central concern for experts is that parents and people in general do not recognize prescription drug abuse as the pressing problem that it is.

"I find it amazing that parents still underestimate the dangers of these drugs when they're misused and abused," Bauer said. "Many parents have no point of reference because these drugs weren't around when they were growing up. This ain't your daddy's medicine."

Prescription drug abuse has been declared a true epidemic by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Pasierb said.

"The No. 1 cause of accidental death in America is prescription drug overdoes," Pasierb said. "It's really become the lead front of the drug issue in America. In eight years it has gone from a fringe behavior that was typified by one or two pain relievers to a broad consumer behavior and has really spun out of control in many different ways."

Much of the responsibility lies on the parents to become educated and safe with their medicine and to talk to their children about the potential hazards of these medicines, Bauer said.

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