Cough Syrup FDA Controversy: Is Agency Helping Teen Junkies?

Cough medicine
Some teens are using cough medicines to get high. (istockphoto)

(CBS/AP) With more teens abusing cough medicines to get high, has the time come to stop over-the-counter sales of the products?

Not according to an FDA panel.

It said Tuesday that products like Robitussin and Nyquil should continue to be sold without a prescription, despite increased abuse among teenagers that has prompted calls to restrict sales of the products.

The FDA panel voted 15-9 against a proposal that would require a doctor's note to buy medicines containing dextromethorphan, an ingredient found in more than 100 over-the-counter medications.

The FDA is not bound to follow the group's advice, though it often does. Specifically, panelists were asked if the ingredient should be "scheduled," a regulatory move designed to decrease access to drugs with high potential for abuse.

"For me there was no data to show us that scheduling this product would decrease abuse," said panelist Janet Engle, professor and department head of pharmacy practice at the University of Illinois.

Abuse of dextromethorphan, dubbed "robotripping," is popular among teenagers as an inexpensive way to get high, but it carries risks, including elevated blood pressure, heart rate and fever. Abusers can also suffer side effects from other ingredients mixed in cough medicines, such as acetaminophen, which can cause liver damage.

Medical complications from the behavior are on the rise, with nearly 8,000 emergency room visits reported in 2008. That was up more than 70 percent from reports in 2004.

Dextromethorphan products were purchased by more than 40 million U.S. households last year. Popular brands containing dextromethorphan include Wyeth's Dimetapp, Bayer's Alka Seltzer Flu Plus and Procter & Gamble's Vicks cough medicines. The drug is available in pills, gel caps, liquids and other forms.

Surveys by cough medicine manufacturers show that less than two percent of youngsters ages 12 to 17 reported abusing dextromethorphan in 2008. That means marijuana and prescription painkillers are far more likely to be abused than dextromethorphan.

In other words, pot it's not.