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.

USA Today takes pride, as it should, in its policy of keeping anonymous sources to an absolute minimum. If only the paper were as rigorous and vigilant in presenting data, rather than wishful thinking, when it attempts to document a new "trend."

Its most recent offending piece is Donna Leinwand's Page One June 13 article, which carries this headline and very long subhead:

Prescription Drugs Find Place in Teen Culture

"Pharm parties" reflect a new world of drug abuse—and introduce a dangerous misperception: Pharmaceuticals are "safer."

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Has there been any year in the last 40 years—or before—that wise parents didn't keep their painkillers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and other licit pharmaceuticals locked up lest their children or their children's friends loot the medicine cabinet? Hell, a high-school friend of mine used to break into drug stores to steal Ritalin and other prescription drugs.

Now, it could be that teens doping themselves with pharmaceuticals is a growing trend, and that pharm parties do reflect a new world of drug abuse. Indeed, if a reporter marshaled convincing evidence, I would be prepared to accept the proposition. But nowhere in Leinwand's hugely anecdotal piece does she substantiate such a trend or shift in consumption patterns. She merely asserts it, or quotes sources who say it's so.

The data she does provide, in an info box, fails to make her point. Titled "Teen Drug Use Shifts," it cites the well-respected Monitoring the Future data on high-school drug use to report that 4.0 percent of 12th-graders said they used the painkiller OxyContin in 2002, and 5.5 percent of 12th-graders said they did in 2005. This contrasts with the percentage of students who'd used Vicodin, another prescription pain-killer. The figure dropped from 9.6 percent to 9.5 percent. Additional MTF data quoted by USA Today finds cocaine use for the same age group essentially unchanged (5.0 percent to 5.1 percent), marijuana use slightly down (36.2 percent to 33.6 percent) and Ecstasy down from 7.4 percent to 3.0 percent.

Trend or no trend? You make the call.

The story's sexy lede tells USA Today readers about "pharm parties," social gatherings where teens assemble to revel as they consume licit pharmaceuticals. Does Leinwand report witnessing a pharm party? No. Does she interview a cop who broke one up? No. Cite a police blotter? No. Does she even interview a teen who claims to have attended a pharm party? No.

Her pharm party sources are 1) an Omaha drug abuse counselor who says her teenage clients say they've attended such parties; 2) other drug counselors "across the USA"; 3) Carol Falkowski, the communications director for the Hazelden Foundation drug treatment center; and 4) a statement in a National Institute of Drug Abuse bulletin that said pharm parties were a "troubling trend." No data is offered, no eyewitness.

The Hazelden Foundation's Falkowski says pharm parties are "simply everyone pooling whatever pills they have together and having a good time on a Saturday night. Kids ... don't think about the consequences." [Ellipses in the original.]

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