Coalitions in Action: Pennsylvania Works to Remedy Cough Medicine Abuse

A coalition in Pennsylvania has worked to raise awareness about medicine abuse in their community, especially with over-the-counter products containing dextromethorphan (DXM). When used as directed, DXM is a safe and effective cough suppressant. But the coalition knew that some youth were purchasing and consuming large amounts of cough medicine to get high. Cough syrup abuse is believed to have contributed to a local student stabbing his grandmother.

They knew that this wasn’t just happening in their own backyard, but all over the country. So, they collaborated with local partners such as The Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission, Inc., Communities that Care Regional and The Commonwealth Prevention Alliance, as well as the national Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), which represents the leading makers of OTC medicines, to educate parents and lawmakers about the dangers of cough syrup.

One of the results of the collaboration is legislation called the DXM Abuse Prevention (DAP) Act. The DAP Act (H.R. 3250) would amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to:

  • Prohibit the sale—both retail and online— of OTC medicines containing DXM to individuals younger than 18. Enacting this restriction at the federal level would reduce the potential for abuse of DXM and establish a clear, consistent, nationwide standard for compliance.
  • Restrict sales of raw dextromethorphan to ensure that only legitimate entities registered with the FDA or comparable state agencies can purchase raw, unfinished (bulk) DXM, the active form of the ingredient. Currently, there are no national sales or purchase restrictions for the acquisition of bulk DXM.

Data collected in 2014 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse for its Monitoring the Future study estimates the intentional abuse of OTC cough medicine among eighth graders is at 2 percent, tenth graders at 3.7 percent, and twelfth graders at 4.1 percent.

The coalition recently drafted two op-eds that were published in their local newspapers and to provide an information packet to lawmakers.

“An empty beer can or pack of cigarettes in the trash would immediately grab a parent’s attention, but an empty bottle or box of cough medicine may not arouse any suspicion if a parent is unaware of DXM abuse,” Donna Foisy wrote in one of their editorials. Foisy is the Project Director of the Bucks Promise for Youth and Communities and the Youth Co-Coordinator of the Council Rock Coalition for Healthy Youth.

Until the DAP Act is passed, Foisy recommends that parents continue to address medicine abuse with their own children.

“Talk to your children and monitor your medications. Safely dispose of expired or unneeded medications. I think the issue of DXM is important so parents are aware and concerned. I think it’s one of those abused substances that is so under the radar. If we can create barriers, make it inconvenient for abuse with our youth, that they have to be of age to get it or buy it behind the counter…if they want to use the cough syrup, they have to get it from an adult,” she said.

The coalition will soon debut a PSA at their local movie theaters to remind patrons to “Mind Your Meds” by discouraging sharing and encouraging proper disposal. They host two take back days every year and maintain 33 permanent drop boxes, collecting more than 15,000 pounds in medicines annually. They encourage residents to bring their cough medicine, as well, to these sites and events.

“Since we have started five years ago, our county has collected 33 tons of used, expired or unwanted medications,” Foisy said.

The coalition also works on numerous initiatives to reduce alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use, but the past few months have been geared toward medicine abuse.

The coalition participates in the Commonwealth Prevention Alliance’s Stop Opiate Abuse Campaign designed to educate Pennsylvanians about the risks of prescription drug and heroin use, the relationship between prescription drug use and heroin use, and what regular people can do to help. A coalition-produced toolkit is distributed to realtors to ask them to help remind homeowners that when leaving their homes for a showing, that they lock up or take any medicines with them.

The coalition, a CADCA member, is a past recipient of the Dose of Prevention award. This prestigious award recognizes community-based organizations that have implemented successful strategies to raise awareness of the dangers of the over-the-counter cough medicine abuse and prescription drug abuse.

In October, CADCA raised awareness on the dangers of prescription and over-the-counter medicine abuse during National Medicine Abuse Awareness Month and urged coalitions to participate in the CADCA 50 Challenge. If your coalition held a town hall meeting or another type of educational event about both prescription drug abuse and OTC cough medicine abuse in your community during October, you are still eligible to register for the CADCA 50 Challenge. One coalition will be named CADCA’s Dose of Prevention Award winner and receive this honor at the National Leadership Forum Feb. 1-4 in Washington, D.C. So if you did hold an event, please register it today.