2 JULY 2002

Australia: Children are swapping, sharing and selling potentially harmful prescription drugs in the schoolyard, an interim report into drug use by youngsters reveals. Drugs include stimulants, Ventolin, the pain-killer Panadol and weight-loss medications.

Drug swapping: the schoolyard scandal

A NSW State Parliament inquiry is investigating the high levels of drugs being prescribed to children. These include stimulants such as Ritalin and dexamphetamine, drugs such as clonidine being used as a sleeping pill and anti-depressants such as Prozac. Experts expressed fears that the drugs were being used to subdue and control noisy children.

Children's focus group sessions run by the NSW Commission for Children and Young People revealed that children were unaware of the dangers of prescription drugs when selling and swapping them.

Children's comments included:

The committee reported it was concerned about children who self-administered prescription drugs. "The committee received information that indicates that these practices [selling, swapping or sharing their prescription drugs or medication] are indeed occurring in the schoolyard," it reported.

The inquiry has just released a series of six issue papers identifying a range of problems:

NSW Children's Commissioner Gillian Calvert said the children's focus groups were based on discussions with 76 upper primary and high school children in North Sydney, Wollongong, Bathurst, Parramatta and Campbelltown. "They gave us a window into their world, which was fascinating," Ms Calvert said. "When they talk about some of these things, dealing with Ritalin and so on, it's possible to have a nervous reaction, but that's not what they wanted. They want to come up with a solution that's sensible and worked; they weren't wanting knee-jerk reactions, they were wanting something that helped them manage those situations."

NSW Health Department figures show that almost one in 20 boys aged between seven and 11 in the Hunter region are being treated with stimulant medication for ADHD. In northern Sydney, about one in 53 teenage boys between 12 and 15 are on the drug. "The number of children commenced on stimulants in 2000 was five times the number commenced in 1990," the department reported. More than one-quarter of the children on stimulants had been taking them for more than three years.

One inquiry committee member, MLC Jan Burnswoods, said she was troubled by the trend to medicate children. "I'm worried if it is indeed the attitude that 'this child is noisy, being a nuisance, so let's give them a pill'. I was fairly surprised by the fairly relaxed attitude, even by the Health Department, at the medicalisation of childhood. That's the broad issue of concern."

One teacher told the inquiry 18pc of students at her school had received drugs once or twice a day.


Methylphenidate (Ritalin) and dexamphetamine. These are psychotropic drugs used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorders. They are rapidly absorbed in the bloodstream and cross the blood-brain barrier easily. But some children are using them to help study for exams or during times of stress. One said: "I know someone who took 12 pills [Ritalin] before an exam." The NSW Children's Commission told the parliamentary inquiry: "It was considered cheap to buy Ritalin from school friends and some young people reported the sale of prescription drugs was particularly common in the private school system as the students had more disposable income."

Laxatives, diuretics and over-the-counter diet pills. Being abused, particularly by girls attempting to diet. Some comments from students interviewed included: "Laxatives are big at school as a weight control tool", and, "Yeah, those things that expand in your stomach so you don't feel hungry - that's really common at our school. Lots of girls at my school take them."

Nicotine patches or gum are available over the counter at chemists. But the inquiry heard evidence of their abuse by schoolchildren. "The committee was advised that some young people are using patches and gum as a way of continuing their nicotine level when they don't have access to cigarettes, rather than as an aid to giving up smoking," it reported.

(under the brand name Catapres), is known medically as an alpha-adrenergic agonist.
Believed to work by reducing aggressive and defiant behaviours. Also has a sedating effect and is used as a sleeping pill to counter the effect of stimulant medication.

from "puffers" is used to relieve lung constriction. Some students use it to enhance sport performance.
One student commented: "Ventolin is really widespread among people who don't have asthma. People know it has steroids and it is used a lot in sports by people who want to breathe more and run faster."

supplements are among the most commonly used nutritional aids to enhance sporting performance. But little is known on how it affects the young.
"The committee is concerned about the apparently widespread use of Creatine and the lack of data on the effect it has on children and young people," it reported.

such as Panadol. The inquiry was concerned that when children swapped medication such as Panadol they did not realise the potential harm. "Some people deal Panadol at school," one student said.


By Clarissa Bye, June 30 2002, The Sun-Herald




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