Stung by reports that children are snorting and injecting the drug Ritalin to get high, the primary maker of the hyperactivity medicine is starting a campaign to curb its abuse.
Ciba-Geigy Corp. sent pamphlets on the proper use of the drug to more than 100,000 pharmacists and 110,000 doctors this week, hoping they will pass them onto school nurses and parents.
“We want to reach the people who may be treating the medication a little too casually,” said Todd Forte, a spokesman for the Swiss drug maker.
Since 1991, Idaho has ranked No. 1 in per capita consumption of the drug. Washington ranks 20th.
While Ritalin has been used for more than 40 years, abuse has grown in recent years as more children are diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder - an affliction marked by inattentive and impulsive behavior.
Parents and police in North Idaho and Boise have reported cases in which students have shared their Ritalin with others.
In Spokane, an average of one child per classroom takes Ritalin for an attention disorder and school secretaries often get the job of doling out the pills.
Schools keep the drug locked up between doses, said Spokane School District nursing supervisor Carol Murphy.
On rare occasions, school workers notice fewer pills than expected in Ritalin bottles brought from home, Murphy said. When that happens, the school contacts the pharmacist or doctor to flag the case for possible abuse.
“We know it has a high street value and we treat it very seriously,” Murphy said.
A report by the United Nations last month said the drug is now so commonplace that 3 percent to 5 percent of all U.S. schoolchildren take it each day - between 1.5 million and 2.5 million children.
The drug, a stimulant in the same family as methamphetamine, was invented by Ciba, but copies are now sold by a dozen other companies under the generic name methylphenidate.
When used in low doses, the drug interacts with chemicals in the brain to help children concentrate. In greater doses, the drug can increase heart rate and blood flow and produce a sense of euphoria.
Some youngsters buy or steal the drug from classmates and then crush the tablets to snort the powder like cocaine, authorities say. Others cook and inject it like heroin.
At least one death has been reported - a 17-year-old teenager who snorted Ritalin at a Roanoke, Va., party last April.
Forte suggested some parents may be too lax in doling out the drug, allowing children to medicate themselves.
“This is not the way the medication is intended to be dispensed,” Forte said. “We’re essentially encouraging parents and school nurses to eliminate any opportunity for diversion of the medication.”
Others put at least part of the blame on doctors.
Dr. Harvey Singer, director of pediatric neurology at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, said some are too quick to diagnose the disorder and prescribe Ritalin. There is no reliable test to make a diagnosis, prompting doctors to rely on reports from parents, teachers and psychologists. Critics say alternative treatments like counseling are sometimes ignored.
James McGivney, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said Ritalin abuse is “certainly not up there with cocaine or methamphetamine or heroin, but we certainly don’t want to see it get that far either.”
“We need to educate the physicians and some of the other educators who seem to think Ritalin is the end-all answer versus some other methods,” he said.