The nation's doctors prescribed enough addictive painkillers last year to medicate every American adult around-the-clock for an entire month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday.
And no state sold prescription painkillers at a higher rate than Florida.
With prescription drugs now killing about 40 Americans each day — more than a three-fold increase in a decade — the report highlighted evidence of an escalating epidemic. Highly addictive narcotic medications such as OxyContin and Vicodin are responsible for nearly 15,000 deaths a year, more than cocaine and heroin combined. And overdoses of all drugs, legal and illegal, kill nearly as many Americans as car crashes, the nation's top cause of death by injury.
"Now the burden of dangerous drugs is being created more by a few irresponsible doctors than by drug pushers on street corners," CDC director Thomas Frieden said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
Along with the deaths and the emotional toll of addiction, prescription drug abuse is costing the nation as much as $73 billion annually, from emergency room admissions to the price of the pills themselves.
Striking disparities in prescription drug abuse between states can't be explained by demographics, CDC researchers said. They blamed differences in state policies and how doctors are practicing medicine.
The use of prescription opioids has blossomed in recent years with the wider acceptance in the medical community that serious pain merits strong medicine. But these drugs are so highly addictive that many experts now are cautioning that they should be used only as a last resort.
Florida ranks No. 8 in overdose deaths from all drugs, and No. 1 in per capita sales of prescription painkillers. Long notorious as the pill mill capital of the nation, famed for supplying out-of-state drug seekers, the state is finally seeing the kinds of actions that federal authorities say should help stem the crisis.
Earlier this fall, a statewide database came online to help catch patients who are shopping around for prescription painkillers — though only pharmacists, not doctors, must use it. New state laws also require tougher penalties for doctors who excessively prescribe painkillers.
"It's something that we should have dealt with years ago," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who has led legislative efforts to curb prescription drug abuse. "We are starting to very slowly get a handle on this crisis."
Still, he agrees with federal authorities that states can do more to monitor doctors and patients for signs of abuse. In Florida, Fasano noted, it's still too difficult to suspend the license of a doctor prescribing painkillers excessively.
The Obama administration is using its bully pulpit to bring attention to the problem. Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder visited Tampa to announce the arrests of nine doctors and two pharmacists on charges of drug conspiracy. But it has stopped short of directing federal agencies to force drug manufacturers to simply produce less (for more on this issue, see the article at links.tampabay.com).
Cutting back the supply might make it harder for legitimate pain patients to get medication, while doing little to stem the highly profitable illicit trade of prescription medications, said Gil Kerlikowske, the nation's drug czar.
"We don't want to turn the clock back to see people that are in need of these medications not getting them," he said. "We don't think given the complexity of the problem that that is an answer."
Letitia Stein can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330.