Are "pharm parties" real or a media invention?

Media criticism.
June 19 2006 7:13 PM

Phar-Fetched "Pharm Parties"

Real or a media invention?

(Continued from Page 1)

But is Califano citing CASA research about pharming parties? No, he's talking out of his hat.

"When Mr. Califano speaks of them in his quotes and statements, he is just referring to popular culture and today's trends," CASA spokesman Lauren R. Duran writes via e-mail.

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In a follow-up mail she writes:

CASA does not have quantitative data on the subject of pharming parties, however we know that the trend exists based on focus groups we have conducted with teens and young adults for various CASA reports where we talk with them about prescription drugs at parties and this is the basis of Mr. Califano's quote.

Califano's comments about pharming parties received uncritical mention in the Washington Post, whose story was rerun by the Toronto Star, the New York Sun, and the State College, Pa., Centre Daily Times, among others. Knight Riddernewspapers, UPI, and the Washington Times also gave it nonskeptical treatment.

Time magazine cited the report in an Aug. 1, 2005, story. This one differs from the previous stories in that it describes actual drug trading among teens in a New Jersey basement—specifically, Ritalin for a painkiller. The reporter writes:

This isn't an ordinary party—it's a pharming party, a get-together arranged while parents are out so the kids can barter for their favorite prescription drugs. Pharming parties—or just "pharming" (from pharmaceuticals)—represent a growing trend among teenage drug abusers.

Note that the kids don't call it a pharming party, the writer does. And also note that Time claims that the parties "represent a growing trend among teenage drug abusers." Evidence of the trend, reports Time, comes in the fact that "about 2.3 million kids ages 12 to 17 took legal medications illegally in 2003, the latest year for which figures are available."

The source of Time's data? The CASA report. But if you consult page 46 of CASA's report where the data are presented, you learn something significant about the 2.3 million teens who admitted to having taken legal drugs illegally. "Not all teens and young adults who abuse prescription drugs do so to get high," CASA states. "Some abuse these drugs to relieve stress, relax or to improve their academic performance." Does that sound like a party—pharm or otherwise—to you?

The story gets its next major press bump from the Sun-Sentinel in a widely reprinted April 23, 2006, article. Reporter Liz Doup cites the 2.3 million figure from CASA. She also watches teenagers swap pharmaceuticals—Vicodin, OxyContin, Xanax—at a warehouse party where liquor flows. In an e-mail interview, she acknowledges that none of the drug-using teenagers she interviewed used the phrase "pharm party" or "pharming parties."

"Those using the term 'pharming parties' were people involved in drug education and treatment," Doup explains.