Home drug-testing kits slow to find a market Growth is expected, but some experts see risks for parents

December 27, 1997|By Jill Hudson | Jill Hudson,SUN STAFF

When the federal government approved his home drug-testing kit in January, J. Theodore Brown Jr. thought he had a sure moneymaker.

The market for such a kit seemed to be huge: Drug use among teen-agers has risen almost 80 percent since 1992, and school-age youths are using drugs at a younger age than ever.

But parents don't seem to be rushing to buy Dr. Brown's Home Drug Testing System, which retails for $42.95 and tests urine for drugs including marijuana, PCP, cocaine, morphine, amphetamines, heroin and codeine. And the Baltimore-based clinical psychologist-turned-businessman has not gotten a needed bank loan after putting in $100,000 of his own money to get his business, Personal Health and Hygiene Inc., off the ground.

"If things don't work out with this," Brown said half-jokingly, "I'll be homeless."

Brown and other makers of home drug kits expect the market for their tests to grow. But they may have to be patient: The idea of parents testing children for drugs is controversial.

Some substance-abuse experts endorse the idea of testing children for drug use but caution that that at-home drug testing won't necessarily solve a drug problem and could cause havoc in the relationship between parents and child.

Dr. Michael I. Fingerhood, assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said parents will balk at acting like police by compelling their young children to provide urine samples, especially if they don't have cause to suspect drug use.

Michael M. Gimbel, director of Baltimore County's Bureau of Substance Abuse, said drug testing "does have value. Kids who are just out of rehab are a good example. Their parents could use a home drug-testing kit as a way to monitor drug use."

Gimbel added, however, that home drug testing could "give parents a false sense of believing that that's all they have to do to get their children away from drugs. I just fear that these tests will be used like quick fixes."

Brown said he spent 13 years developing and perfecting his home drug kit and more than two years trying to get it approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Although there are other nonprescription home drug-testing kits available, Brown's is the only one approved for use by the FDA, which recently announced that other kits could be sold without the agency's explicit approval. The agency requires that all urine-testing kits be mailed to a certified laboratory.

Brown appears to have at least one significant advantage over his competitors: publicity.

After winning FDA approval for his kit, he was immediately deluged by reporters eager to talk to the 49-year-old clinician, who has taught at Howard and Georgetown universities.

Brown recently participated in a National Public Radio talk show to discuss chemical dependency and is working with Howard County's Office of Substance Abuse Impact Services.

Next month, Brown plans to unveil a radio campaign promoting his drug-testing system and has announced that an infomercial selling the kit will soon appear on cable televi-

sion.

His stiffest competition, the PDT-90 Personal Drug Testing Service, is produced by the Psychemedics Corp., a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that has done corporate drug testing for 10 years.

The PDT-90 -- a hair-analysis drug-testing kit available in more than 10,000 drugstores nationwide -- can show whether a person has used any of five illegal drugs within the preceding three months.

Neither Brown nor Ray Kubacki, president and chief executive officer of Psychemedics, would discuss sales estimates or profits for their testing kits, but Kubacki said home drug testing is a slowly emerging market.

"Most of the parents who called us said that they had an immediate need for the test because they saw signs of abnormal behavior in their kids," said Kubacki. "I think the market will grow larger when parents use the deterrent aspect of these tests. I can see a time when parents will establish a family policy about drugs just like corporations do."

Brown agreed. "We hear from parents who say all they have to do is buy the kits and put it on top of the refrigerator," he said.

Fingerhood said parents should consider the potentially damaging effect a home-administered drug test could have on the parent-child relationship.

"I can't imagine as a parent asking my kid to go into the bathroom so that I can have a urine sample," Fingerhood said. "I just don't know if I'd ever want to be in the role of policeman with my child. You just hope that you can talk."

Fingerhood said parents should be certain they have good reason to test their children. "If parents don't have a cause for testing, the risk of getting back a false positive result" -- a false indication of drug use -- "may outweigh the benefit of getting back a true negative result," he said.

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