- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2011

MIAMI | The White House drug czar wants doctors, states and law enforcement officials to step up efforts to contain America’s deadliest drug-abuse problem: highly addictive prescription painkillers. They are killing more people than heroin and cocaine combined as they foster a slew of illegal “pill mill” clinics centered in Florida.

The federal government on Tuesday announced its first-ever comprehensive strategy to combat the abuse of oxycodone and other opioids, aiming to cut abuse by 15 percent in five years. That goal may sound modest, but it would represent a dramatic turnaround: Emergency room visits from prescription drug overdoses doubled from 2004 to 2009, when they topped 1.2 million, according to federal health officials.

“To say we are going to do away with the problem in five years, we cannot do that,” said Dr. Roland Gray, medical director of the Nashville-based Tennessee Medical Foundation and a Food and Drug Administration adviser on addiction issues. “I think they are headed in the right direction.”

The new approach will employ education, stepped-up law enforcement and pill-tracking databases, with particular emphasis on Florida, where 85 percent of all oxycodone pills in the nation are prescribed. Many of those end up along the East Coast and in Appalachia, where people take buses to Florida just to get pills in a phenomenon dubbed the “OxyContin Express.”

“The key is that everyone realizes there is no magic answer to this,” Gil Kerlikowske, President Obama’s national drug policy director, said in an interview. “It’s a really complex problem.”

Danny Webb, the sheriff of Kentucky’s rural Letcher County, said he would welcome a 15 percent drop in misuse of prescription drugs.

“Anything would help, because we’re drowning in it up here in eastern Kentucky,” Mr. Webb said, adding that he is skeptical any government plan will ultimately work.

When used properly, oxycodone and similar medications help people deal with chronic pain by slowly releasing key ingredients over many hours. Abusers crush the pills and sniff or inject them, resulting in a euphoric heroinlike high.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overdose deaths from painkillers have risen from less than 4,000 in 2000 to more than 11,000 in 2007, the most recent statistics available. Cocaine deaths went from about 3,000 in 2000 to more than 5,000 in 2007; for heroin, the numbers have remained steady at around 2,000 each year.

Renee Doyle, a Fort Lauderdale mother whose son Blayne was in an oxycodone haze when he was struck and killed by a car in 2009, said her son was able to get 240 pills on each monthly visit to a local pain clinic simply by asking for them.

“I think people were just not paying attention and then greed took over,” she said. “They are legal drug dealers and they should be outlawed.”

The strategy announced by Mr. Kerlikowske’s office calls for additional training on responsible prescription practices for the more than 1 million doctors authorized to prescribe certain controlled substances. Such a change would require congressional approval.

Another element of the strategy is a national education campaign featuring ads like the famous frying-egg “This is your brain on drugs” ad. Drug companies will be asked to contribute money to the effort.

The plan also calls for continued aggressive law enforcement efforts and better training, as well as modest increases of $123 million for drug prevention and $99 million more for treatment programs.

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