Pharmacy professor uses fiction to warn teens about opioid abuse
by Luanne Williams
Laura Happe

A pharmacist and researcher with experience in the health-insurance and pharmaceutical industries, Wingate associate professor Laura Happe is no stranger to the opioid crisis. Her 15 years as a healthcare professional have included work to reduce abuse and improve appropriate prescribing of the drugs that, when abused, kill more than 100 Americas every day.

But it was her personal life, her roles as a mom and a wife, that led her to write a book warning teens about the dangers of abusing these drugs. If You Give an Ox an Oxy is due out this month from Morgan James Publishing.

“As my two children were approaching their adolescent years, my thoughts about opioids got personal,” Happe says. “I began to think more about how my children will navigate this world where opioids are a part of the arsenal of drugs that kids may experiment with.”

She began to do a little research about teen opioid use and found that 669 children under the age of 19 died from opioid overdoses in 2016 and that 57 percent of adolescents who misuse opioids get them from friends or family members. She also found that 72 percent of 10th-graders do not think that using heroin (a type of opioid) has a great risk of harm and that just 14 percent of parents have talked to their kids about prescription-drug abuse.

She knew that last percentage was one she could potentially change.

“My husband and I love using interactive books to facilitate conversations with our kids about difficult topics,” Happe says. “We have books on stranger danger, puberty, and internet safety, for example.” But when she went to find a book to help spark a conversation about opioids, she found a gap in the literature.

“It didn’t take long for me to realize there was no resource like this available for parents, teachers or youth leaders to navigate a conversation about opioids with their kids,” Happe says. 

And so she got busy writing a parody of Laura Numeroff’s beloved children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Inspired by the mouse who was clearly addicted to cookies, the story follows an ox who goes from taking a few opioids to overusing them and finally becoming addicted. 

“One of my goals was to create a fun way to have this challenging conversation,” Happe says. “As such, the book is loaded with infographics, illustrations, statistics and every possible pun using the word ox,” such as “oxcellent,” “oxtreme” and “oxam,” Happe says. “Also, the references back to the mouse story may conjure up positive memories of being read to and feeling protected as a child.”

Happe hopes that readers will then associate that positivity with the message of her book and that the positive feelings will help them to make good choices.

Designed for ages 12 to 18, the 57-page book features the Ox’s story with simple but detailed explanations of how opioids work and includes questions to spark discussion.

Whether parents buy her book or not, Happe urges them to talk to their teenagers about the risks of prescription-drug abuse. “There is no perfect script for what to say,” she says. “The important thing is to have a conversation and open the lines of communication.”

In addition to being an author and professor, Happe is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Managed Care and Specialty Pharmacy, the peer-reviewed journal of the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy. She directs the managed-care-pharmacy track at the University of Florida in Gainesville and teaches population health at Wingate University’s School of Pharmacy. Prior to these roles, she was chief pharmacy officer at Humana, where she led the company’s response to combating the opioid epidemic.

Happe can be reached at l.happe@wingate.edu. Her book is available at Amazon. Listen to an interview with her about the book on this Political Pharmacist podcast.

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