USA Today runs the stupidest drug story of the week.

Media criticism.
June 17 2011 6:57 PM

Stupid Drug Story of the Week

USA Today takes the prize.

(Continued from Page 1)

The piece reports the deaths of two young people from the use of pharmaceuticals, but it doesn't connect either of their deaths to the "troubling" pharm party "trend." The mother of one of the deceased youths says her son "was not the first kid to die in this neighborhood from prescription drugs." Okay, who else died in the neighborhood? USA Today doesn't say.

The data Leinwand presents doesn't really advance her thesis of pharm parties "across the USA" or of a grand increase in the recreational use of pharmaceuticals by teens. She writes that a government study shows that "Overdoses of prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugsaccounted for about one-quarter of the 1.3 million drug-related emergency room admissions in 2004. …"

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But because her story is about "pharm parties" and "rising abuse of prescription drugs by teens and young adults," this statistic doesn't help her case: It doesn't break out ER admission of teens or young adults from the 1.3 million total admissions and it includes nonprescription drugs. I also wonder: How many of these drug-related ER admissions were suicide attempts and had nothing to do with partying on drugs?

Still, Leinwand believes in the trend, writing:

The abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs—which barely registered a blip in drug-use surveys a decade ago—is escalating at what Falkowski and other analysts say is an alarming rate.

Note how once again Leinwand blurs the definitional boundary to include over-the-counter drugs in a story that's primarily about prescription drugs. Where was the editor? At a morning-glory-seed party sponsored by the Washington Post? Leinwand blurs age categories, too. The story starts out being about teens and youths, at least twice it expands to include young adults without defining them, then slips back to being about teens.

What potentially persuasive statistics does Leinwand present? She cites a 2005 survey by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America—an anti-drug propaganda group—that states that 19 percent of U.S. teenagers have taken prescription painkillers or stimulants to get high. No word from her on whether that figure is up or down.

Leinwand accepts the anecdotal evidence that kids might be consuming more Ritalin and Adderall recreationally today than in past years. That's possible because more is prescribed today, and it's logical that some of it would be diverted. But she doesn't muster data from the Monitoring the Future survey or elsewhere to illustrate such an increase.

Monitoring the Future indicates no great changes in recent total drug use. In 1996, 50.8 percent of surveyed 12th-graders said they'd used an illicit drug in their lifetimes. That figure rose to 54.7 percent in 1999 and dropped to 50.4 percent in 2005. If you look at the numbers for illicit drug use among 12th-graders in the last 30 days, you find that use peaked in 1997 at 26.2 percent and fell to 23.1 percent in 2005.

MTF finds that annual use of Ritalin—one of the alleged pharm party drugs—by 12th-graders dropped from 5.1 percent in 2001 to 4.4 percent today (see Page 55 of this pdf).

Trend or no trend? You make the call.

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