A young person’s dilemma: I want a new drug…just not sure which one

I want a new drug
 One that won’t make me sick 
 One that won’t make me crash my car 
 Or make me feel three feet thick — Huey Lewis & The News

Recently, I was speaking to a 23-year-old, who was telling me about his recent trip to South America — a long plane ride from the U.S. east coast. The trip, he feared, would likely give him a good case of jet lag. So, he sought a solution: take an Ambien. Ambien, if you aren’t familiar with it, is a prescription drug intended to treat people who suffer from insomnia. Sounds like the right pill for someone who needs to sleep in order to be refreshed by the time his plane lands. Easy decision. Right? However, the young man obtained the pill, not from a doctor’s prescription, but from a friend.

I asked rhetorically: why was the decision to self-prescribe Ambien (zolpidem) such a no-brainer? No-brainer may not be the correct term to use when you consider the side effects of this drug. According to the drugs.com website:

Ambien may impair your thinking or reactions. You may still feel sleepy the morning after taking this medicine, especially if you take the extended-release tablet, or if you are a woman. Wait at least 4 hours or until you are fully awake before you do anything that requires you to be awake and alert.

Zolpidem causes a severe allergic reaction. Stop taking this medicine and get emergency medical help if you have any of these signs of an allergic reaction: hives; difficulty breathing; swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat.

Do not share this medication with another person, even if they have the same symptoms you have. The recommended doses of Zolpidem are not the same in men and women, and this drug is not approved for use in children. Misuse of this medication can result in dangerous side effects.

Some people using this medicine have engaged in activity such as driving, eating, walking, making phone calls, or having sex and later having no memory of the activity. If this happens to you, stop taking Ambien and talk with your doctor about another treatment for your sleep disorder.

Do not take this medicine if you have consumed alcohol during the day or just before bed.

Zolpidem may be habit forming. Keep the medication in a place where others cannot get to it.

This young man’s friend must have missed that line above about not sharing this medication with anyone. The young man who is the subject of this article used what he perceived to be a relatively benign substance without considering all of the contraindications. Indeed, given such a list of warnings, why would anyone dare share this medication with others for whom it was not prescribed? Furthermore, given the contraindications that take up much time or space in many prescription drug advertisements, why would anyone take any prescription drug that has not been prescribed for them; however, for young adults sharing prescription drugs is just an example of blithe nihilism?

Research suggests that young adults (and perhaps it’s true for other demographic groups), appear to differentiate between functional and recreation uses of prescription drugs. In other words, they do not view prescription drugs in the same light as illicit drugs, like cocaine. Where this attitude comes from, I’m not totally sure.

However, research that I have conducted on this subject appears in the current issue of The International Journal of Communication and Health. The article, “The Influence of mediated and interpersonal sources on attitudes toward nonmedical use of prescription drugs among young adults,” seeks to describe and partially explain what I call a generalized ambivalence toward nonmedical use of prescription medications.

One of the major findings of the study is that young adults — those 18–24 — are uncertain about the use of prescription drugs that have not been prescribed to them by a physician in order to: help them study, help solve personal problems, and get high, among other uses. Young adults also hold mixed to negative views of advertising, and those attitudes correlate with negative attitudes toward prescription drug advertising and its ability to educate consumers.

Their ambivalence and associated skepticism toward advertising, it was expected, would fuel their uncertainty whether or not it is okay to take prescription drugs that have not been prescribed for them. And, they also believe that prescription drugs provided by their friends or acquaintances are safe to take, not having the potential consequences of taking illicit drugs. Please refer back to the contraindications for Ambien to better understand this contradiction.

Young adults’ uncertainty may be associated with their stage of life. In other words, most prescription drugs are for conditions that are not particularly salient to them, and as a result they have the latitude to express attitudes that are reflective of the lack of relevance of messages regarding prescription drugs.

Although the research shows that young adults learn about prescription drugs mostly from their parents, they are also exposed to the good and bad side of prescription drug use and abuse through popular culture, including through exposure to direct to consumer prescription drug advertising.

The most important finding of my research, I think, is that attitudes toward nonmedical use of prescription drugs are related to the extent of young adults’ use of the Internet and the time spent using new media. Their uncertainty may be a by-product of the conflicted feelings young adults hold as they differentiate between illicit drugs and prescription drugs. But it also may be that a healthy dose of skepticism and related ambivalence and uncertainty is a good thing, as the overwhelming nature of information about prescription drugs comes from unreliable sources, including prescription drug advertising and social media.