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Army marketing campaign to inoculate force against prescription drug abuse

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Oct. 07, 2011) -- The number of Soldiers abusing prescription drugs is low -- very low. And the Army just signed a contract to develop a marketing campaign to help keep that number low.

In September, the Army signed a contract to develop a marketing campaign to educate Soldiers, leadership and family members about the addictive nature of prescription drugs such oxycodone. The measure is preventative in nature and the first wave of campaign material should appear in January 2013.

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"We see an ever increasing threat, from a national level, of the potential for abuse of prescription drugs," said Dr. Les McFarling, director of the Army Substance Abuse Program. "We've seen the abuse of pain killers, oxycodone for example -- and that's something that's rising very fast in the national scene."

McFarling said some consider drugs like oxycodone "a medical miracle" due to its speed and effectiveness in relieving pain. At the same time, he said, there's the potential that once a Soldier starts taking such a drug, he might not stop.

"It doesn't take much," McFarling said. "These are very, very dangerous drugs, in terms of their addictive quality."

McFarling said that today in the Army, there isn't much indication that prescription drugs such as amphetamines, methamphetamines, codeine, morphine, oxycodone or oxymorphone are being abused in great numbers. Data from the Army shows that in fiscal year 2011, for instance, among the 507,502 drug tests conducted for amphetamines, about 0.13 percent of Soldiers were subsequently confirmed to have been using the drug illicitly.

For methamphetamines, about 0.07 percent were shown to be using illicitly. For codeine, that number is 0.05 percent, oxycodone is at 0.08 percent, and oxymorphone is at 0.15 percent.

Even with the low number, McFarling said, if abuse of a prescription drug like oxycodone does become a problem, it's one that's "very, very, very hard to correct. This is one of the most addictive drug families you can have. It's much easier for us to prevent Soldiers from becoming addicted than it is to help them get rid of their addiction."

The campaign the Army will embark on will be preventative in nature, he said, one that is aimed at making Soldiers aware of the risks and addictive nature of many prescription drugs. The format of the campaign, he said might be similar to what the Department of Defense is doing with its "That Guy" campaign to educate servicemembers about alcohol abuse.

"You have people coming into an installation, they do rollouts, get community involvement with presentations, they do media spots, paper campaigns, handouts, possibly billboards, social media, anything you could conceive of to sell this idea," he said.

In addition to the anti-prescription drug abuse campaign the Army is gearing up for now, the service already has other efforts in place to prevent an epidemic of prescription drug abuse.

Prescription drugs are being tracked across the Department of Defense now, to ensure Soldiers aren't inadvertently prescribed multiple doses of the same addictive drug -- or that Soldiers don't seek out multiple prescriptions. Also, there are now limits on the amount of time a Soldier is allowed to use a prescription -- even if there are pills left over in the bottle.

Also coming in the future, a widening of the scope of random drug tests. Today, when a Soldier goes in for a random drug test -- there's a 100 percent chance he'll be tested for marijuana. There's only a 20 percent chance of him being tested for oxycodone, however.

By the middle of fiscal year 2013, oxycodone will become part of the standard drug test. Other drugs like those in the hydrocodone family or benzodiazepine tranquilizers will also eventually become part of the standard drug testing battery.

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