Deaths from drug overdose, particularly prescription painkillers have tripled in the past decade, say US health authorities.
The quantity of painkillers on the market is so high that it would be enough to medicate every American with a standard dose of Vicodin every four hours for one full month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The epidemic of prescription drug overdoses in the United States has worsened over the last decade," said the CDC Vital Signs report.
The study focused on opioid pain relievers, including oxycodone, methadone and hydrocodone, better known as Vicodin, which have quadrupled in sales to pharmacies, hospitals and doctors' offices since 1999.
Last year, 12 million Americans aged 12 and older, or just under five percent of the population, reported taking prescription painkillers for recreational uses, not because of a medical condition.
The number of deaths from overdoses of opioid pain relievers has more than tripled from 4,000 people in 1999 to 14,800 people in 2008.
Deaths from prescription drugs made up almost 75 percent of overdose deaths in which a drug was specified on the death certificate, the CDC said, noting that deaths and hospitalizations have increased in parallel with the boost in supply.
The sales rate of the three opioids included in the study reached 7.1 kilograms per 10,000 population last year, or the same as 710 milligrams per person in the United States.
"Enough OPR were prescribed last year to medicate every American adult with a standard pain treatment dose of five milligrams of hydrocodone (Vicodin and others) taken every four hours for a month," the CDC said.
Even though a relatively small portion of the US population admits abusing prescription painkillers, the costs to health insurance companies are huge -- $72.5 billion per year, according to the report.
Rural and poor areas tend to have the highest prescription drug overdose death rates.
The epidemic is at its height among middle-aged white men and American Indians or Alaska natives, the CDC said.
States could do a better job of regulating the problem via drug monitoring records and insurance claims information that "can identify and address inappropriate prescribing and use by patients," the report said.
More laws targeting so-called "pill mills," which are prescribing at higher than normal rates in particularly affected states, could also cut back on the problem, it said.
"State policy can make a huge difference in allowing this to proceed," CDC director Thomas Frieden said.