Clamping down on prescription painkiller abuse

(CBS News) The Food and Drug Administration has called the abuse of prescription painkillers a "major public health challenge." On Friday, the FDA wrapped up a hearing on the drugs including oxycodone, Vicodin and Percocet. These painkillers do their job well -- but come with a big risk.

"My liver started shutting down," said 28-year-old Kimberly, who asked that we not use her last name. "My kidneys started shutting down. My thyroid level was through the roof."

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Kimberly nearly died from narcotic painkillers prescribed after a car accident. At first, she only needed one or two pills a day. But eventually she became addicted to the high.

"My tolerance started growing," she said, "and I started taking two at a time or three at a time. It grew to 15 at a time."

Kimberly is not alone. In 1999, there were about 4,000 opiate-related overdose deaths in the U.S. That figure more than quadrupled to 16,500 deaths in 2010.

"I knew that I needed to stop," Kimberly said. "I knew I did, but I couldn't bring myself to do it."

William Cope Moyers, a vice-president of the Hazelden Foundation, a drug treatment facility, said: "We are the most overly-prescribed nation in the world."

He said doctors need better education on the risks of addiction and non-narcotic options for pain treatment. Asked whether doctors are trained well enough in the management of chronic pain, Moyers said: "Clearly, doctors know the scourge of chronic pain, its legitimacy. But what they often don't know is how to deal with it with something other than writing a script."

Kimberly is in treatment at Phoenix House and has been drug-free for eight months.

"Who knows what's going to happen tomorrow? But I'll deal with that then," she said. "But today, I'm not getting high. And then tomorrow comes and I'll try the same thing."

So what are the possible solutions to the problem? The focus is on education. Patients think, 'This is a safe drug. After all, my doctor prescribed it, it's FDA-approved.' The FDA is trying to reverse that misconception. Then the White House is working to try to enact legislation so when doctors apply for that DEA registration that allows them to write the narcotics prescription, first they have to take a course that teaches them how to correctly use it.

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook