Our Blasé Attitude Toward Pills

Are pills the new alcohol–a socially acceptable way to relax?

According to the latest New York Magazine cover story, Lisa Miller’s “Xanax: A Love Story,” the answer is yes. Writes Miller:

“So reliably relaxing are the effects of benzodiazepines that SAMHSA’s director of substance-abuse treatment, H. Wesley Clark, says they’ve gained a reputation as ‘alcohol in a pill.’ And their consumption can be equally informal. Just as friends pour wine for friends in times of crisis, so too do doctors, moved by the angst of their patients, ‘have sympathy and prescribe more,’ says Clark. There are a lot more benzos circulating these days, and a lot more sharing.”

The article is accompanied by an illustration called “Chill-Pill Matchmaking,” which shows “four anxious archetypes and the drugs that might suit them.” The recommended pills are Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin and Valium.

Last I checked, these were some heavy-duty drugs, and yes, some people cannot function without them. But those who can function without them would be better off trying to deal with the anxiety another way.

The thing is, pills and alcohol are not equal. Consider this: According to the CDC, nationwide, one person dies every 19 minutes of prescription drug overdoses. Mixing drugs and alcohol can be deadly, but many people don’t think twice about popping a Xanax and still having their alcohol of choice.

I remember being in my 20s, living in Manhattan, going out every night with my friends. Drinking was the center of my social life, and I didn’t want to give it up, even for one night. If I was on antibiotics, and the doctor said drinking was not recommended, I drank anyway. I’d rationalize it, telling my friends, “It’s not like the doctor said definitely don’t drink. He just said he didn’t recommend it.”  Many people who already drink alcohol as a regular part of their routine are simply adding the pills on top of it, instead of substituting one for the other.

In an article in the Miami Herald on the dangers of mixing prescription drugs and alcohol, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN chief medical correspondent, explains that part of the problem is the perception that legal drugs are safe. If a doctor prescribes it, it must be okay.

In the interview, Dr. Gupta says that doctors need to give stronger warnings. According to Gupta, when doctors say, “Don’t drink if you are taking this medication,” it seems like a courtesy warning. Gupta believes that “a warning that a person dies every 19 minutes would be a stronger warning.”

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