Public focuses on drug problem when stars reveal addictions

November 18, 1993|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Staff Writer

This week, mega-superstar Michael Jackson admitted an addiction to painkillers.

Last week, actor River Phoenix's autopsy revealed an overdose of cocaine and heroin caused his death.

When celebrities are arrested, confess or worse -- die -- because of drugs, does all the media attention help the struggle to control the drug epidemic?

"What it does is focus the general public's attention on the use of drugs by celebrities or middle-class people," says Richard Lane, director of Man Alive Research Inc., a Baltimore methadone treatment center.

Mr. Lane doesn't necessarily see an increase in people seeking help every time a celebrity is in trouble. Perhaps because drug abusers -- and plenty of others -- have become nearly anesthetized to the frequent news of celebrity drug usage, Mr. Lane says.

Although drug abusers are not always moved to seek help when celebrity cases are highly publicized, the increased attention can be beneficial in the long haul, says Karen Rogich, a spokeswoman for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Celebrities "definitely bring attention to the drug problem. That in turn could mean increased awareness and somewhere down the line, increased funding," Ms. Rogich says.

Sometimes, though, a famous person's drug problem does move more people to seek help.

"Remember when Len Bias died? There was a dramatic decrease in the use of crack cocaine then," says Ellen Gibson-Adler, a spokeswoman for the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission.

Bias, a star basketball player at the University of Maryland, died of a cocaine overdose in June 1986.

Perhaps it was because he was a celebrity a little closer to home, instead of off in Hollywood, says Dr. Donald Jasinski, chief of the Center for Chemical Dependence at Frances Scott Key Medical Center.

"There most notably was an increase in people seeking help then," he says. "People using crack cocaine got scared."

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