Nearly 15,000 Americans died from an overdose of prescription painkillers in 2008, a record rate that has outstripped fatalities from illegal drugs like cocaine and heroin combined, health officials said on Tuesday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that as of last year 12 million Americans were using prescription opioid or narcotic pain relievers, such as Vicodin, OxyContin and methadone, for the high they cause instead of their true medical purpose, or without a legitimate prescription.
Many get the drugs by eliciting prescriptions from several doctors, also known as "doctor shopping," or through so-called "pill mills," prescription forgery rings and illegal online pharmacies.
The amount of painkillers made available at pharmacies, hospitals and doctors' offices quadrupled from 1999 to 2010, contributing to the overdose death rate that more than tripled over the decade.
"More of a problem is now created by a few irresponsible doctors than drug pushers on street corners," CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden told reporters in a phone briefing.
In fact, enough painkillers were prescribed last year to medicate every American adult every four hours for a month.
"The system is awash with opioids, drugs that get people hooked and keep them hooked," Frieden said.
More men died of overdosing on painkillers than women in 2008 and the death rate was worst among middle-aged, white Americans, the CDC report showed.
By state, it found the painkiller abuse problem at its worst in Oklahoma, where more than 8 per cent of people over the age of 12 abused opioid pain relievers in 2008 to 2009.
Oregon was next in line with almost 7 per cent of the population reported to abuse painkillers. The rate was just over 6 per cent in Rhode Island and Washington state.
New Mexico, West Virginia and Nevada saw the most people killed by the abuse. The lowest death rate was in Nebraska.
The alarming spread of prescription drug abuse has prompted a campaign by President Barack Obama's administration.
In recent crackdowns, authorities have made arrests in Florida, where CDC has found the highest rate of prescription painkillers sold per person, and suburban Philadelphia.
One included an operation to shut down "pill mills" and another was a bust of illicit workplace distribution at Boeing's military aircraft plant.