I decided to do an experiment that might threaten my health and well being to be able to write an entertaining column for all my loyal readers – all five of you. So through illicit means – which are all too easy these days – I obtained two Ambien pills and took them around 8:00 p.m. Quick FYI: Ambien is a Food and Drug Administration-approved prescription drug to help people with insomnia.

I have heard all kinds of stories about people sleepwalking on Ambien and even people burning their houses down under its soporific effects. So I took the pills and tried to stay awake.

It took about 30 minutes to kick in. My eyelids felt heavier than they do during my 2:00 p.m. lecture. I felt caught between the realms of consciousness and dreams. I climbed under my bed to shield myself from the cacophony emanating from the TV. The mushroom scene from “Knocked Up” suddenly seemed all too real.

Just kidding. Talk about decidedly detrimental to one’s health – staying awake on a drug meant to help insomniacs sleep. I couldn’t rightly do that and write about health on a weekly basis. Plenty of people do try things like that, however, and it is not an issue to be taken lightly.

Heath Ledger’s tragic death brought an increasingly worrisome issue closer to the forefront. Ledger’s death was the most recent in a string of overdoses by celebrities, including Anna Nicole Smith. Often these overdoses are not done with illegal drugs, but rather, prescription drugs.

Psychologically speaking, most people believe prescription drugs are seemingly innocuous in comparison to illegal narcotics like heroin or cocaine. In the eyes of many, when the FDA stamps their approval on the safety of a drug, that makes it safe to consume in excessive amounts.

In light of Ledger’s death, the Los Angeles Times published an article about the pernicious effect prescription drugs are having on many people. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that unintentional poisoning deaths increased from 12,186 people in 1999 to 20,950 people in 2004. Ninety-five percent of those deaths are from drug overdoses and, most strikingly, prescription drugs have overtaken cocaine and heroin as the leading cause of the overdoses.

According to the article, the majority of overdose deaths occur because of painkillers such as oxycodone and methadone. Too high a dose of these painkillers can shut down the respiratory system.

According to a survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 15.1 million Americans admitted to using prescription drugs for non-medical reasons in 2003.

There are several factors that have contributed to the drastic upturn in use. First, the powerful drug lobby now advertises directly to consumers. There was a time when drug companies would only advertise their products to doctors, but now football games, reality shows and news programs are littered with advertisements promoting Viagra’s ability to help an 80-year-old man keep it up for hours on end.

The irony is that consumers do not have the ability to attain these drugs without the consent of their doctor. Apparently, people are very easily manipulated. Who wouldn’t tell their doctor they need Cialis after seeing old people sit in outdoor bathtubs as the sunsets behind them – never mind the idea that outdoor bathtubs don’t actually exist?

The only other country in the industrialized world that allows direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs is New Zealand. Congress had the ability to curtail the advertising, but the powerful influence of the drug lobby prevented them from doing so. With John Edwards dropping out of the race, however, it looks like lobbyists are staying in Washington D.C.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has plans for an advertising campaign targeting prescription drug abuse by teenagers. The government had focused much of its effort in the past on drugs like cocaine and heroin, but now they are coming around to the burgeoning crisis.

The onus falls on everyone from the government to big drug companies to ignorant parents whose children treat their medicine cabinets like the cookie jar. We should be wary of targeting people who rightfully need these drugs, but we should make every effort to make the cookie jar less attractive and harder to break into.