Drug abuse … or TV news abuse

Mar 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

TV news doesn’t really cover the field of medicine. Instead it goes about the business of fomenting hysteria. Sometimes it’s a kind of benign hysteria, the careless spreading of false hope by reporting on some small advance in scientific research that may or may not result in a medical breakthrough three, six, 10 or 20 years down the pike. Don’t hold your breath, as the saying goes.

But what the TV news boys and girls really love is a hot juicy story that spreads fear and loathing about drugs and their dangers, real or imagined. Apparently it’s good box-office-that is, good for ratings-to air stories that demonize a particular drug and at the same time help to popularize it.

Every network news department has now done a story or two on a drug called OxyContin, a high-powered painkiller prescribed for the most severe cases of suffering; cancer patients are among those most likely to have it prescribed and to consider it a godsend. But it turns out that in some areas where the usual hard-core recreational drugs like crack cocaine are in short supply, substance abusers have found a way to get high on OxyContin. They grind it up into powder and snort it or make it soluble and inject it into their veins.

High on the story

A national epidemic? No. Not even close. But TV newscasts have tried to portray it that way in stories filled with hype and half-truths. And in the course of “reporting” on abuse of the drug, they’ve all aired how-to pieces that include handy, easy-to-follow instructions on the correct abuse procedure. They tell you how to get high. Then the correspondents do follow-up reports expressing shock and dismay that the abuse is becoming more popular.

Yeah, more kids are using the drug to get high because they heard about it and even saw how to use it on the evening news.

The hysteria gets whipped up by each succeeding piece until we reach the point, noted in an “NBC Nightly News” report last week, that some doctors are reluctant to prescribe the drug because it’s suddenly got this “bad” reputation. Meanwhile, kids who might never have dreamed of using it to get high are breaking into pharmacies and stealing it or mugging patients as they leave pharmacies after having their legitimate prescriptions filled.

“We are the drug du jour,” laments Robin Hogen, executive director of public affairs for Purdue Pharma, the company that makes the drug. For those with intractable pain, with pain that has resisted other medications, OxyContin has been a blessing. But media hysteria threatens that, at least until the panic spotlight moves on to some other medication.

When I was in Los Angeles recently, every TV station was doing stories on Vicodin and how for celebrities it’s the drug of choice for recreational use. These reports made Vicodin sound fashionable, cool, chic-irresistible. In the pursuit of ratings, the reporters were encouraging impressionable viewers to get hold of some of that Vicodin and tie one on. You won’t just be high, you’ll be hip.

Oddly, OxyContin wasn’t mentioned. Maybe it will be the drug du jour in Los Angeles when the Vicodin stories start falling flat.

TV reporters have been “hysterical from Day One,” Hogen says, in reporting on abuses of OxyContin and on deaths allegedly caused by overdoses. Well, not “caused by.” The reporters are careful. They usually say “linked to.” Even that may be a stretch of the facts. It’s been repeatedly reported that the drug can be linked to 59 deaths in Kentucky within the last year. Why Kentucky, of all places? That’s part of the story the reporters usually leave out.

Even ignoring that, the figure may very well be bogus. Once one reporter uses it, all other reporters feel free to use it without double-checking. But there is no hard evidence that OxyContin played a key role in 59 Kentuckians keeling over. David Jones, an official with the Kentucky State Medical Examiner’s office, looked into the claim and wrote a letter to Purdue Pharma:

“I am unaware of any reliable data in Kentucky that proves OxyContin is causing a lot of deaths. In the State M.E. Office, we are seeing an increase in the number of deaths from ingesting several different prescription drugs and mixing them with alcohol. OxyContin is sometimes one of these drugs.”

From local to national

What’s happened, Hogen says, is that a regional story has been inflated into a national one by TV journalists. He says abuse of OxyContin is confined mainly to “rural pockets” in five states: Maine, West Virginia, Virginia, Alabama and Kentucky. Why rural areas of those states? “Because the people who abuse drugs there can’t get heroin or crack cocaine the way people in big cities can,” Hogen says. “It’s part of the economics of the drug business. The abuse is mainly in poor rural communities where there is high unemployment and high substance abuse already.”

As the TV reporters have made vividly clear, manipulating the drug by crushing it (thus bypassing a time-release feature) and then injecting it can give a sudden and drastically euphoric high. They usually trot out an abuser to describe how delicious and wonderful the high can be, thus making it sound still more enticing to what we might call the Drug Abuse Community.

But there is also in America something called a Pain Community. These are people suffering intensely from pain or involved in research to find more and better ways to control it. OxyContin gives effective pain relief for 12 hours with no euphoria involved, Hogen says, but TV news is giving it a reputation as a cheap kick for drug-crazed thrill-seekers.

Who needs the facts?

Could the network news departments turn a regional problem into a national problem by continuing with these alarmist reports? “Absolutely,” Hogen says. “None of these clowns on television are reporting the beneficial aspects of the drug. Only the abuse. They are scaring pharmacists, scaring doctors and scaring patients.”

Contrary to reports, the drug is not new but was introduced in 1995. Finding a way to abuse it has been a fairly recent occurrence, apparently. Hogen says stories about the abuse just happened to break during the first week of the February Sweeps. What luck for TV newscasters. “They jumped on it as if they had discovered gold,” he says. Each network in turn dutifully did its report, with each reporter trying to top the previous guy’s piece by making the drug sound deadlier, the high sound higher, the hazards more hazardous.

It isn’t hard to imagine news directors at local stations throughout the country now wondering aloud at staff meetings why the station hasn’t had its own report on the big OxyContin scare. You can’t just let a nice panicky rabble-rouser like that slip through your fingers. Then more kids and other substance abusers get exposed to the story and the drug leaps forward in popularity and infamy.

There is, apparently, no epidemic of OxyContin abuse. And while movie stars may currently favor Vicodin as their high of choice, there’s no epidemic of Vicodin abuse either.

What’s epidemic is bad journalism. But you won’t see Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings doing any stories on that.