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Eye Kit for Drug Screening Not Accurate, Doctors Say

December 18, 1989|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The war on drugs is turning into a battle of credibility for the promoters of a do-it-yourself eye test that some of the nation's leading medical experts say is useless in helping parents ferret out drug abuse on the home front.

Since its introduction more than a year ago, the Winners Program kit, marketed by Athletes for a Strong America, has become the center of a debate over whether it is an effective tool or a gimmick to make a buck off the country's alarm about drugs.

In August, a federal judge in Colorado deemed the eye test extremely inaccurate. A month later, prominent doctors and researchers cut through the exam's glowing testimonials from sports figures and concluded that the $49 kit was almost worthless. Family counselors have also joined the fray, saying the weekly regimen of home testing could destroy trust between parent and child.

"The wholesale use of the eye test needs to be evaluated very carefully," said Dr. Don Catlin, a UCLA professor of medicine, who directed drug testing for athletes in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. "I am concerned about this product and other products that go out on the market in an attempt to diagnose things."

But Athletes for a Strong America, a nonprofit organization based in Mission Viejo, is undaunted by its critics. The group's directors say the kit is the best available tool to screen children for drugs.

"Our critics don't see enough addicts to put in a thimble," said Dr. Forest Tennant, a drug adviser to the National Football League, who helped adapt the eye examination for the home. "If people don't start learning how to recognize drug use and get people off drugs by using this test, I don't think we have any choice but to legalize drugs."

Tennant, the former mayor of West Covina and owner of a string of drug treatment clinics in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Fresno, developed the test for home use more than 14 months ago at the urging of Athletes for a Strong America.

Since then, support for the organization has come from more than 100 professional and college sports figures, including Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, Los Angeles Rams coach John Robinson, former Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr and Denver Broncos head coach Dan Reeves.

The kit contains a penlight, a scale for measuring pupil size, an instructional videotape and a 32-page manual to teach parents how to recognize and prevent drug use. It also contains tips on how to maintain a child's self esteem.

A key part of the program, however, is an eye test similar to that used by law enforcement officers during field sobriety tests. During the exam, parents check for redness, puffiness and excessive tearing. Next, pupils are checked for dilation or constriction and whether they react properly to light. Finally, the eyes are observed for involuntary jerking and the inability to focus on an object coming toward them.

If drug use is suspected, the kit recommends an urinalysis test at Tennant's Community Health Projects Medical Group, which owns 25 drug and alcohol clinics. Urine tests can cost up to $100.

Tennant and David Hannah, president of Athletes for a Strong America, hope the eye check will become as commonplace as the toothbrush or thermometer. To institutionalize the technique in the family, they suggest that parents start the test when their children are about 7 years old and administer it every few days from then on as a deterrent and detection device.

Although much of the group's activity is in Southern California, colleges, school districts and businesses in several states have adopted the test. The promoters also have appeared on radio and television talk shows throughout the country, and Hannah estimates that the group has sold kits to about 10,000 families in the Southland alone.

"We are struggling with a tremendous drug problem," Hannah said, "and the eye test is the best method we've got. As a screening tool, it can be tremendously helpful. If there is a better deterrent you can give to parents, I want it."

But a group of ophthalmologists, pharmacologists, medical researchers and sports medicine experts at UCLA Medical Center and the University of Iowa are not convinced. They became concerned about the eye test last summer after the media reported that the device, marketed under the name "Rapid Eye Check Kit," was being sold for home use.

Members of the UCLA group also said they were worried that Bruin head football coach Terry Donahue, who was co-chairman of Athletes for a Strong America, was lending his name and the university's reputation to something they thought didn't work. (Donahue, who appeared in the kit's videotape, has since dropped out of Athletes for a Strong America. He declined to comment).

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