Sleep medication at risk

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ambienMethamphetamine, an illicit drug that took hold in the Western states beginning in the early 1990s and spread eastward, began its journey to the top of the priority list of federal drug agents largely because of its manufacture by Mexican criminal organizations.

As the market for meth expanded, bootleggers discovered an easy source of pseudoephedrine, the base ingredient for their controlled substance of choice -- over-the-counter cold remedies such as Sudafed. It was only a matter of time before special interest groups and law enforcement agencies began to lobby federal and state legislatures to dramatically limit and regulate the public's access to these effective and relatively cheap legal cold medicines. These efforts resulted in state and federal legislative crackdowns on the public's access to theretofore easily-accessible cold remedies.

Have these efforts, which have greatly inconvenienced the American consumer and significantly increased government regulation of lawful drugs, helped stem the tide of methamphetamine abuse? Not really.

According to recent Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) analysis, while access to pseudoephedrine through purchases of Sudafed and other drug remedies containing that base ingredient has decreased, this has been more than offset by increased exports of the illicit drug from Mexico. However, this has not led to any effort to undo the heavy-handed regulatory and enforcement schemes enacted in recent years attacking the public's access to lawful -- and effective -- anti-cold medicines.

Thus it has always has been when knee-jerk government reaction to a problem trumps concern for the convenience of the public and focuses government away from true and effective law enforcement. Thus it will likely be in the near future with yet another lawful prescription drug -- sleep medications.

Prescription sleep medications such as Ambien and Lunesta have proven extremely successful, with more than 43 million prescriptions filled last year alone. Of course, sleep medications, like virtually all drugs affecting the nervous system, are potentially abusive, which is precisely why the literature accompanying them and the advertising for their sale contain specific warnings against abuse and about its possible side effects. Notwithstanding such warnings, the abuse of sleep medications has increased dramatically; the victim of its own success as well as of trial lawyer greed.

Recent news reports indicate young Americans -- including many teenagers -- now sneak sleep-aid pills from their parents' medicine cabinets and pop them into their backpacks for use at neighborhood parties. The abuse has already given rise to street nicknames for prescription sleep aids: "A-Minus," "Zombie" and "Tic-Tac."

Also, contrary to explicit warnings against being taken with alcohol and certain other medications, sleep medications are becoming an excuse for adult Americans caught driving under the influence. No less a public figure than U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy has blamed the prescription sleep medication, Ambien, for his May 2006 crash into a Capitol Hill cement traffic barrier. Mr. Kennedy claimed he was "disoriented" by the combined effects of the sleep medication and other prescription drugs he had been taking. He joins a growing legion of those who cause serious accidents or otherwise run afoul of the law but find a handy excuse for their misdeeds in prescription sleep medications.

Television talk shows are now devoting airtime to programs featuring alleged victims of the side effects of prescription sleep medications. In a recent Montel Williams show, for example, one abuser admitted to shopping her prescriptions for a sleep-aid to various pharmacies to greatly increase the number of pills she was able to secure, and then take many times the prescribed amount each day -- up to 90 in one 24-hour period.

Despite such obvious and deliberate abuse, and even in light of other "victims" of sleep medications like Mr. Kennedy causing their problem by failing to follow a physician's advice and avoid taking prescription medications with certain other drugs, the Ambien "excuse" is taking hold. In fact, it has become so widespread and popular that trial lawyer Web sites now solicit Ambien plaintiffs. Already, an enterprising New York lawyer has filed a class action lawsuit against Sanofi-Aventis on behalf of more than 100 Ambien users claiming the drug was responsible for every manner of ill, from weight gain to shoplifting.

Unless this rush to demonize a legitimate prescription drug is curtailed, those Americans who rely on its therapeutic effects may have to find other, perhaps less-desirable medications. Time is running out, however.

A new Democratic-controlled majority in the House of Representatives may very well cast aside common sense, and launch an unfair attack on sleep medication in the new Congress.

source - Washington Times