updated 7/26/2006 7:36:36 PM ET 2006-07-26T23:36:36

Hispanic teenagers are using prescription medicine to get high more than other teens in the country, federal drug prevention officials said Wednesday as they announced a national campaign aimed at curbing the problem.

While use of illegal drugs among Hispanics is typically lower than other groups, one in five Hispanic teenagers reported trying prescription drugs to get high, according to a 2005 survey by Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

"We are concerned the Hispanic youth, especially, are leading this race, and it's a race we don't want them to win," said Mary Ann Solberg, deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Hispanic practices can both complicate and help solve the problem, experts say.

Families that normally obtain medications without prescriptions at Latin American pharmacies will sometimes stock up there, then return to the U.S. with the drugs. That makes the medications available to teenagers, who also can get them online without a prescription, said Carlos Ugarte, senior public health adviser for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group.

Power of parenting
Yet parents have more power in swaying their children than they may realize, according to experts. Hispanic parents usually emphasize family ties and respect for elders, and data show the main reason most Latino teenagers abstain from drug use is the dread of offending their parents, Ugarte said.

"You as a parent ... you have the ability to discuss drug use with your children and to communicate very clearly for them that you expect that they not use drugs. That in our family this is not what we do. That we have exceptions of you," Solberg said.

Still, parents often aren't aware of the risks posed by medications or don't talk about them, experts said. Only one-third of parents reported discussing the risks of prescription and over-the-counter medicines in the partnership's study.

"Sometimes as Latino parents we're reluctant to touch on taboo issues," Ugarte said.

Misperceptions on safety
Many teenagers don't realize the problems that arise from misusing prescription and over-the counter-drugs, experts say. An estimated 45 percent of Hispanic teenagers believe that prescription medicines are safer than illegal drugs, the partnership survey found.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy launched a national advertising campaign Wednesday to inform parents and help them prevent drug abuse among their children.

As part of the campaign, an open letter-style advertisement signed by nearly a dozen Latino organizations will run in the top 14 Hispanic media markets. Materials include a brochure on preventing drug use and a two-disc DVD for parents on how to discuss difficult issues. The materials are available in Spanish and English.

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