The death of California High School graduate Joey Rovero from prescription drug abuse last December was a hard pill to swallow for family, friends and the community.
Before consuming some oxycodone painkiller and Xanex anti-anxiety medications with alcohol at a party on Dec. 17, the 21-year-old Arizona State University senior was at his prime, "a very popular kid who had friends all across the country," said his mother, April Rovero.
He was "super fit and healthy, at the top of the world," added his older brother, Jim Hansen, 35, who had visited him the week before.
Fifteen short hours later, Joey Rovero was found lying on his bed, seemingly asleep.
He never woke up.
"It's been a life-long impact on all of us," April Rovero, 57, said. "A mixture of medications, especially with alcohol, can be so deadly."
To spare others this nightmare, she and a handful of San Ramon residents formed the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse.
"Our feeling was we really needed to share this information with as many people as possible, with parents and children as well as educators, school administrators and medical professionals who do not know they are feeding into these problems," said April Rovero, the founder and CEO.
The coalition's mission — to spread awareness not only at the local but national level — is timely in this day and age.
Prescription drug abuse is the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and for obvious reasons.
Because prescription drugs are legal they are easily accessible, often from a home medicine cabinet, and some individuals who misuse them — particularly teens — believe the substances are safer than illicit drugs because they are prescribed by a healthcare professional and sold behind the counter.
Numerous studies on health issues confirm an alarming increase in prescription drug use, particularly among adolescents.
According to the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in June, 20 percent of students nationwide had taken prescription drugs without a doctor's prescription one or more times in their lives.
The latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 56 percent of people age 12 or older who using pain relievers non-medically in the past year got the drug from a relative or friend for free. Another 18 percent said they got the drug from one doctor.
The extent of this problem in the community is "understated and growing," according to Dr. Richard Gracer, a member on the coalition's board of directors. About 30 percent of people can become addicted very easily because of their genetic background, he said.
"In the beginning they take it and feel good and then pretty soon it flips into if they don't take it, they feel horrible and get the drug addiction," Gracer said. "Some of these folks may not even be aware that they're addicted, they just keep going back to the doctor."
The coalition has yet to receive accreditation as a nonprofit organization but has made significant strides since it came together in March. Its website launched at the beginning of this month.
Leading objectives include planning parent and student educational activities for grades six through 12, establishing programs at college campuses and serving as an umbrella organization for community-based groups across the United States.
"We want to be seen as a national organization that they can tap into for resources and best practices, tools for other people to communicate the dangers of prescription drugs that take place on a regular basis," said the coalition's president Greg Van Ess, who lost his son Alec to prescription drug abuse in 2009.
San Ramon Police Chief Scott Holder said the department does not have statistics on prescription drug crimes because they "are very rare and dealt with more by doctors than law enforcement."
In the last five years, however, activities like "Skittles parties," in which adolescents gather and take random medications to test their reactions, have grown more common, said Scott Gerbert, who has coordinated safe and drug-free school programs for the San Ramon Valley Unified School District since 1995.
"I have definitely been aware of young people who have mixed alcohol and prescription medications both in our district and in surrounding districts that have led to trips to the emergency room and some complications physically, mentally and emotionally," said Gerbert, also member of the coalition's board of directors.
The presentation at the high school was "very eye-opening" for San Ramon resident Laura Wick, 48, who attended with her son and was moved to join as the coalition's secretary.
"We definitely have to get the word out to students very much like we have with smoking and seatbelts," she said.
The message also registered with her son, Connor Wick.
"I would simply not have to do with prescription drugs and if I knew people participating I would persuade them not to do it," the 14-year-old California High School sophomore said.
Events like these are steps in the right direction considering only one-third of parents discuss the risks of abusing prescription medicines with their children, according to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Adolescents who learn about the risks of drugs at home are up to 50 percent less likely to use them.
Recognizing that some youth digest the message better when it comes from people closer to their own age group, the coalition has recruited young adults.
One of Joey Rovero's high school friends, Zack Tehaney, serves as director of collegiate programs and is a key speaker himself.
"It's easier for kids to relate to a peer than someone that is 30 years older than them so I definitely think kids are getting the message," the 21-year-old San Jose State University student said.
In addition to addressing the issues within the community, the coalition has been fighting at the legislative level.
Several members traveled to Sacramento in early May to testify on behalf of Senator Mark DeSaulnier's CURES bill, SB1071, which would provide revenue for a database that doctors could use to monitor the prescribing and dispensing of drugs. Though the bill was rescinded, DeSaulnier is exploring alternative funding sources besides pharmaceuticals for a second push.
Currently, the coalition is also supporting the Stop Oxy Abuse Act of 2010. The bill, sponsored by Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack, directs the Commissioner of Food and Drugs to modify the approval of any drug containing controlled-release oxycodon hydrochloride so it is limited to use for severe pain only. The bill is pending consideration by the state House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The coalition is moving toward a national reach by partnering with one local organization after another. Ties have already been established with Community Against Drug Abuse, Teen Esteem and the Discovery Counseling Center.
"We can do great things when we've got more people working toward one common goal," said Kim Gallagher, Youth to Youth project director for the Community Against Drug Abuse.
Teen Esteem Executive Director Linda Turnbull said she hopes the organizations will work to improve their collaboration so they "don't have to reinvent the wheel."
Starting a nonprofit in this economic climate is challenging but Thom Martin, president and CEO of the Discovery Counseling Center, believes the coalition will succeed.
"People are still giving and supporting things that are important – I think this is one of them," he said.
The coalition has been featured on a WomensRadio program and has had several Tri-Valley Community Television segments that can be viewed online Monday at 4 p.m., Thursday at 8 a.m., Saturday at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. and Sunday at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.
People interested in supporting or joining the coalition can contact organizers through Facebook or at email@example.com.
As the coalition expands across the country and through different platforms, Hansen said one message surrounding prescription drugs will remain clear: don't start.
"If you do, you're playing Russian roulette with your life," he said. "This is an opportunity to save other peoples' lives, and if we save at least one other life, my brother's death is not in vain."