Distributing candy pills at a behavioral health conference was a marketing faux pas. We can use it to spark change that will save lives.

Holly Hagle, PhD, Director of Education and Training at IRETA

I recently attended a large national behavioral health conference and was absolutely elated to see a growing public interest in behavioral health issues, so much so that over 4,000 attendees from across the country gathered in one place to talk about them.  It thrilled me further that every plenary speaker that I listened to talked in detail about the need to focus on issues related to substance use (abuse, misuse and addiction).

In fact, it was quite moving and a little surprising to have the headline speaker (a woman of major political influence) share her personal experience of having known young people who died of accidental overdose from prescription drugs and alcohol.  She spoke with passion and issued a call for action to solve the crisis of prescription drug addiction and overdose.

I mean, I’ve been in addiction training and education for 12 of my 20 years in the field and this national dialogue on substance use really is unprecedented.

Then something very disheartening happened: I saw that a couple of the conference’s major vendors were passing out conference swag that consisted of mock prescription medication pill bottles filled with candy and some of the candy were shaped as pills. This marketing faux pas shows a lack of understanding on two major fronts: recovery from addiction and prevention of risky substance use.

From a recovery perspective: it mocks people who had and have a prescription drug addiction.

From a prevention perspective: it minimizes the seriousness of medication.

For candy pills to be the featured giveaway from a major corporate vendor at the largest conference on  mental illness and addiction in the country…is just plain puzzling.  Especially since every single plenary speaker reflected on addiction and overdose (at its highest rate in decades for the young and the old, all of these deaths preventable), poking fun at these issues with prescription bottles and pills was strikingly sad.

But I can’t end this post on a sad note and I won’t.  We should–and of course we will–learn from this “marketing faux pas.”  We have to help change the social climate that we live in.  We have to adjust the types of images and messaging we are sensitive to.  Because both the explicit and subtle messages that we, as a culture, send about drug use and addiction make a difference.  Those messages can help save or take lives.

Sorry, but I take these things personally: today marks the twelfth year since my mother died of an accidental prescription drug overdose. Like many other people with Serious Mental Illness (SMI), her life was shortened by perhaps 30 years. She passed away at 57.

It is serious, deadly serious.  We know from the CDC that:

Drug overdose was the leading cause of injury death in 2010. Among people 25 to 64 years old, drug overdose caused more deaths than motor vehicle traffic crashes.

Drug overdose death rates have been rising steadily since 1992. There was a 102% increase between 1999 to 2010 alone.

In 2011, drug misuse and abuse caused about 2.5 million emergency department (ED) visits. Of these, more than 1.4 million ED visits were related to pharmaceuticals.

Between 2004 and 2005, an estimated 71,000 children (18 or younger) were seen in EDs each year because of unintentional medication overdose.  This excludes self-harm, abuse and recreational drug use.

Deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses among women have increased more than 400% since 1999, compared to 265% among men. About 18 women die every day of a prescription painkiller overdose in the US, more than 6,600 deaths in 2010. Prescription painkiller overdoses are an under-recognized and growing problem for women.

About the Author

Dr. Holly Hagle has been actively working with providers since joining the Institute for Research, Education and Training in Addictions (IRETA) in 2003. She is the Director of the National Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment Addiction Technology Transfer Center (National SBIRT ATTC) and as such oversees all ATTC training and educational initiatives. Dr. Hagle has also overseen the curriculum development and project coordination for three Heath Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)-funded SBIRT projects with the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing since 2006. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Health and Community Systems, University of Pittsburgh, School of Nursing. Dr. Hagle has her BS in Psychology, MA in Education, Curriculum and Instruction and PhD in Education, Instructional Management and Leadership.


Urban Outfitters to Discontinue Products Promoting Rx Drug Abuse (June 2013)

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