WASHINGTON — The White House drug czar and the state attorneys general of Florida and Kentucky told Congress on Thursday that prescription drug abuse is "a national crisis" and efforts to fight it will falter without better cooperation between states and better education of the medical community and the public about its dangers.
Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that the issue was "not on the radar screen" until recently, but that prescription drug overdoses, commonly from a pain medication called OxyContin, have become the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, surpassing gunshot wounds and car crashes.
It's an economic problem as well, costing health care providers, employers and taxpayers $56 billion in 2007, he said. "We weren't paying attention to it," Kerlikowske told the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade. "That was a huge mistake."
About 100 people die every day from drug overdoses, and while high-profile examples such as Anna Nicole Smith get the most attention, it's a national problem.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said at one hospital in Tampa, 20 percent of the babies born were born addicted to prescription drugs.
"Imagine the worst addict you see on TV going through withdrawals — that's how these babies come into this world," she said.
Florida was the epicenter of prescription drug "pill mills" until the Florida Legislature passed a tough prescription drug law last year, a law Bondi called "long overdue."
A statewide crackdown that began a year ago resulted in 2,000 arrests, and the seizure of nearly half a million pharmaceutical pills. But the enforcement efforts are pushing the illegal pain clinics northward into other states, such as Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio.
All but two states have begun Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, which help prosecute those who are behind rogue pain clinics, but Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway and Bondi said states need to do a better job of sharing information.
"You can pass these laws and move on, but that doesn't work," Bondi said.
Drug enforcement officials have tried to get people to give up prescription pills voluntarily, and the DEA has collected 500 tons of unwanted or expired medications through these efforts. Bondi said drop boxes recently set up at police stations collected five tons of prescription drugs.
"This is a war on drugs," Bondi said. "The drugs have changed."