TAMPA —More than 1,500 Florida babies are born each year already addicted to powerful prescription painkillers.
Excruciating withdrawal can take three weeks — just as with an adult addict.
"I saw these babies, and it changes your life," state Attorney General Pam Bondi said Friday. "They have to be covered with blankets. They're sensitive to light and sound. And they don't cry, they shriek."
Bondi and other state officials gathered at St. Joseph's Women's Hospital to announce a public awareness campaign designed to fight newborn addiction. It will urge pregnant women to discuss painkiller use with their doctors — even if they are taking the drugs illegally.
The overall message will be "when you use prescription drugs during pregnancy, you are hurting two people,'' said Rob Siedlecki, the Department of Children and Families' assistant secretary for substance abuse.
The campaign, Born Drug-Free Florida, will feature a website, 20 to 50 billboards across the state and thousands of radio and television spots, Siedlecki said. DCF will spend $300,000 to pay for it.
Bondi said the initiative had its origins in a phone call from a nurse at St. Joseph's, where officials estimate that 15 percent of babies in its neonatal unit are addicted to opiate-based painkillers such as OxyContin. They are often treated with methadone to help them through detoxification.
Bondi visited the hospital, peered into incubators and heard the cries. Some babies struggle to breathe, others have seizures. At Bondi's urging, the Legislature authorized a task force to examine the scope of the problem.
Earlier this year, the task force reported that babies going through withdrawal — formally diagnosed as "neonatal abstinence syndrome'' — ring up five times the hospital cost of a healthy baby. In fiscal 2011-12, they cost the state Medicaid program $32 million.
More and more babies are needing detoxification — a reflection of increased painkiller abuse in adults, said Doug Leonardo, executive director of BayCare Behavioral Health.
In the last five years, the number of people seeking treatment for prescription drug abuse has shot up 445 percent, he said. Prescription drug problems now account for more than half of children removed from their homes by state.
Bondi said officials from other states are seeing the same trends and have requested copies of the Florida task force report and information on the public awareness campaign.
"We want to make Florida the pioneer for the rest of the country,'' Bondi said
Some campaign billboards are already up in the Tampa Bay area, and the website is up and running at www.borndrugfreefl.com.