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These Robitussin products are designed to relieve coughs or colds. But unless you’re at least 18 years old, you can’t buy them from the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. Concerned by potential abuse of the over-the-counter medicine, the agency requires customers to show proof of age.
These Robitussin products are designed to relieve coughs or colds. But unless you’re at least 18 years old, you can’t buy them from the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. Concerned by potential abuse of the over-the-counter medicine, the agency requires customers to show proof of age. (Kent Harris / S&S)

A recent spate of publicized cases of abuse of cold medication in the States — especially by young people — has authorities on the alert for potential problems in American military communities across Europe.

San Diego Chargers defensive back Terrence Kiel was arrested last month by federal authorities for shipping cases of prescription cough medicine to Texas, focusing attention on a growing problem. Texas authorities say the medication is being combined with soft drinks, alcohol or other drugs to produce drinks used to get high. Such cocktails can be sold for more than $200 a pint on a street corner.

Other reports had teens downing entire bottles of over-the-counter cough syrup to get high. The practice, sometimes called “Robotripping” because it can involve Robitussin cough medicine, is said to be particularly popular in the South.

“We are aware it’s an issue,” said Patricia Cassiday, student services coordinator for Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe, adding that educators throughout the system had been sent alerts. “But we’ve had no cases, to my knowledge, of this happening in the schools.”

DODDS policy requires students to either receive medication through the school nurse or prove to school officials that they have permission from parents to take it. That includes even common medication such as aspirin, Cassiday said.

She said a student who had several bottles of cough syrup in a locker would attract attention.

Col. Curtis Hansen, chief of pharmacy at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, said parents should pay similar attention.

“If you see bottles of cough medicine in the house, and you don’t know why it’s there, you should be concerned,” he said.

He agreed that’s also good advice for servicemembers in on-base housing, because the abuse cases in the States aren’t limited to teens.

Hansen said it would be difficult to obtain excessive amounts of cold medication at military pharmacies.

“If you come in and get something one day, we’re not going to give you the same thing the next day,” he said.

“Especially with controlled substances. We monitor every pill and tablet very carefully. It would probably be more difficult for retailers to monitor.”

The Army and Air Force Exchange Service has a list of more than 60 over-the-counter medications that it won’t sell to anyone under 18.

Teresa Gaskins, retail program specialist for AAFES-Europe, said a list is in store computers, and the cashier is notified whenever one of the items is scanned. Lists can be updated quickly and easily and might actually vary from one location to the next if a base commander has asked for a specific item to be monitored. But there are no general restrictions for purchasing over-the-counter medication for those 18 and older.

The Defense Commissary Agency has no age-restriction policy (except on cigarettes), according to Kevin Robinson, a DeCA spokesman. He said DeCA complies with federal regulations and won’t sell a product it believes is harmful to customers. He said DeCA does monitor purchases because of the potential for black market sales on the economy.

“We’re always cognizant of unusual purchases,” he said. “And if we see them, we’ll notify the proper authorities.”

Despite on-base restrictions, it is still possible for Americans to purchase similar medication on the economy. Hansen said that countries such as Germany have similar regulations on obtaining prescription drugs, but, as in the States, most over-the-counter medications aren’t monitored as closely.

Why the fuss? Drinking large quantities of cough syrup isn’t technically illegal. But Hansen said an array of harmful side effects is possible. There have been reports of people dying from overdosing on prescription cough medicine in the States.

“Any time a person takes more of a medicine than is prescribed, you’re going to have side effects,” he said. “If you don’t need to take it, you shouldn’t be taking it.”

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