Dextromethorphan Abuse Widespread Among Teens

cough syrup being poured on a spoon

It Sounds like a Bad Joke

Four robots walk into a room. Three of the robots are sober, and the fourth is high on cough medicine.

The first sober robot looks at his intoxicated friend with embarrassment, shakes his head in disgust and leaves. Two sober robots remain. As the intoxicated robot commences to make a fool of himself, a second robot eventually has enough and leaves as well. The robot who is high on cough medicine started out with three friends, and now only one remains until he too becomes fed up and leaves. That’s it. No more friends. All alone. Game over.

I don’t mean that metaphorically, I mean the video game is over. That is the basic premise of an innovative mobile gaming app that serves as an anti-drug campaign for kids who may be considering getting high on cough medicine or “robo-tripping” for the first time. Allow me to first explain the reason behind the need for a smart phone game such as this, and we will swing back to the details of the game in a bit.

Dextromethorphan (DXM)

Robotripping, as defined by the Urban Dictionary is “drinking a bottle of Robotussin cough syrup (containing DXM), with the intention of purposely hallucinating.” That’s right, much like huffing glue or paint fumes, it is a way to get high on common items that you can buy legally. The high isn’t the same as huffing glue or paint but the ease of purchase is similar. It doesn’t have to be the specific name brand Robotussin either, any product containing DXM can achieve these effects. Another very popular over-the-counter brand containing DXM is Coricidin Tablets, also referred to these days as Triple C’s or Skittles.

Who is doing this?

Not surprisingly, mainly teenagers are abusing it. A fact sheet released by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association in 2010 shows that cough medicine abuse is primarily found in the teen population.

Statistics from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health more specifically show that abuse of DXM is at its highest prevalence among 12 to 17 year olds. Let’s slow down and let that sink in for a moment, 12 to 17 year old kids. We are talking about an age group that still has sleep-overs and has to ask mom or dad for a ride to the mall or anywhere else. That is disturbing, but it sadly makes sense when you realize that compared to substances such as street drugs or even alcohol, this is one of the few intoxicating substances easily accessible to teens as it is sold in every gas station, pharmacy and grocery store imaginable.

This 2012 study shows that one (1) out of ten (10) teens report having used over-the-counter cough or cold medicines to get high. So if you find a teen that has not tried it, chances are good of them knowing someone who has. Of course none of this is without consequence as you might imagine. Abusing DXM can lead to serious health conditions ranging from impaired vision, nausea, hallucinations all the way to coma and even death. Actually, the hallucinations seem to be the desired outcome, but that comes with all sorts of nasty side affects.

The effort to curb abuse

All of this is why lawmakers in recent years have began enacting laws aimed  to curtail the ease of purchase by minors of products containing DXM.

Twelve states have taken action to prohibit the sale of DXM to minors by implementing outright prohibitions. This is done by carding anyone attempting a purchase at the cash register, so that if you are under 18 years old, you are simply not getting it. Of course teens are a crafty demographic when they want to be, so this alone will not stop the misuse, but it goes a long way in helping.

Return of the Robots

About that app I was describing at the beginning, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) and Drug-Free Kids teamed up to allow teens a simulated experiment with DXM without having to actually try it, called DXM Labworks.

As they explain it, they are targeting teens where they pay attention the most: their smartphones. The target audience gets to play a video game with robots while simultaneously scrolling through real facts about the side effects of taking too much DXM. As their ads say, it lets the kids come to their own conclusions “without insulting their intelligence or coming off as preachy.”

After downloading this app to my phone a few days ago, I gave it a test drive. I found myself playing the role of a robot with 3 robot friends, and I have “been injected” with large amounts of DXM. I am instructed to complete a number of assigned tasks under the effects of this drug without falling, breaking things or eventually throwing up.

Walking across the room, going down the stairs…  it has all become a challenge. One of my robot friends throws a soda bottle across the room for me to catch, and being very disoriented, I miss the bottle, and it breaks the giant flat screen TV behind me. After failing to stand up from a couch under wobbly legs, and other unsuccessful failures at basic motor skills, I eventually vomit and the last friend I had leaves me. The game is over. I’ve lost.

Domo Arigato CHPA

In addition to making cool robot apps, the CHPA seems to be at the forefront of the anti-DXM campaign. In researching the misuse of cough medicine, almost everything I found online led me to something they have produced. Websites, fact pages, the gaming app, and it is all by design. They have put a lot of effort into their Search Engine Optimization which just means that they have created content in such a way that when you look up DXM online, even with bad intentions, you eventually if not immediately wind up on one of their web pages.

It is a brilliant web based strategy that involves a knowledge of how search engines operate, mixed with advocacy work with lawmakers and other organizations to try and stop teens from harming themselves.

My son is turning 12 years old next month so the statistics are especially troubling to me. I certainly appreciate the lawmakers making efforts to curb this and to the work the CHPA and others are putting into this campaign. Some retail chains have implemented the practice of carding kids attempting to buy DXM whether that state has passed a law or not, because it is their right to do so. That is comforting on some levels but again, would be up to each individual store if a law has not been passed yet.

All of these efforts have a multi-pronged effect and go a long way in helping solve a problem. I would not be surprised to see more states pass similar legislation in the future, as it is trending in that direction. These efforts along with proper parenting on this subject can be very effective. Teens are 50 percent less likely to abuse drugs, according to the CHPA, if they talk about the risks of drugs with their parents.

Talk to your kids if you are a parent, see if your pharmacy is willing to participate in carding kids for purchase of DXM even if your state doesn’t have a law, and if they do not have a law you can even help push for legislation in your state if you choose.

The numbers show that all of these things combined can have a positive outcome on this problem.

As always, thanks for reading and stay updated on any changes in state and federal laws aimed at curbing DXM abuse with Bula Pharmacy Law Tracking.