Abuse of Robitussin-DM, an over-the-counter cough medicine, is an immediate threat to Utah's teenagers, and state agencies should look at controlling the drug's distribution, leading Republican lawmakers said Thursday.

Senate President Arnold Christensen and House Majority Leader Craig Moody, both R-Sandy, represent the Alta High School area. Their concern comes in the wake of reports of extensive and repeated abuse of the over-the-counter cough suppressant by Salt Lake area teens seeking an artificial high. A group of concerned parents in the Alta High School area are also circulating a petition aimed at getting the drug pulled off the shelf and put behind the counter with prescription drugs.The abuse has become increasingly evident, and some believe it could have contributed to the recent suicides of two Jordan District high school students - one an Alta High School football player. Toxicology reports on both youths revealed high levels of dextromethorphan, one of the ingredients in the medicine.

It takes only days to implement an emergency state rule and several months to go through the whole rule-making process. State agencies should look at creating a rule controlling the drug, Christensen said.

If the state Health Department or some other agency decides to act, the drug's distribution could be controlled soon.

Publicity surrounding the drug's abuse brought two physicians from A.H. Robins, the drug's manufacturer, from Richmond, Va., to Salt Lake City Wednesday on a fact-finding mission. The physicians are meeting with representatives of the Utah Medical Association and Dr. Lewis B. Hancock, director of the Dayspring Program at Wasatch Canyons Hospital.

Fifteen to 20 percent of the teens treated there have abused Robitussin-DM, Hancock said.

"I think what is going on is a very tragic situation," said Dr. Anne W. Board, director of clinical development for A.H. Robins. "The drug has been marketed since 1965 and we have received isolated reports of abusive use or overdose."

But Board indicated this is the first time they've investigated a problem of this magnitude.

"This is the first opportunity we've had to discuss the problem with anyone with a medical background. The other reports have come from abusers themselves or close friends who want to know what the long-term effects are."

Moody told members of the Legislative Management Committee: "I went on a walk the other day (led by local officials). We saw half a dozen empty bottles (of Robitussin-DM). This is critical."

"We need to find out the extent of the problem," Moody said. The interim Health Committee will look at the abuse level, the availability of the over-the-counter drug, and what can and should be done.

"We need to look at making it a prescription drug or restrict sales to over 21," said Moody.

But Christensen said perhaps the situation can't wait for a year-long study and action by the 1990 Legislature. That's why he suggests a rule controlling the drug.

Board believes that any pharmacist has the authority to control Robitussin-DM "in any way he wants."

"Your problem is that there are a number of other drugs that contain dextromethorphan. So controlling the sale (of Robitussin) may slow down the problem, but won't curtail it.

"I would think it unfair if only Robitussin were addressed and the other dextromethorphan-containing products, especially the generic copycat drugs, were not addressed as well." She emphasized that when used according to directions, Robitussin-DM is a very useful drug.