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Editorial: Rx meds are new drug battlefield

A file photo of 80 mg pills of

A file photo of 80 mg pills of OxyContin. Credit: Newsday, 2010 / Thomas A. Ferrara

Long Islanders know from painful experience what a recent national survey of illicit drug use has documented: Prescription drugs are the substances of choice for millions of abusers. Their non-medical use is the nation's fastest-growing drug problem. In fact, federal officials say, it's an epidemic.

We've waged a four-decade, $1-trillion war on illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin and marijuana. But as the action shifts for abusers, our focus should, too.

Based on a national survey in 2010, public health officials estimate that 7 million people older than 12 had used prescription psychotherapeutic drugs nonmedically in the previous month. That's more people downing pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants and sedatives for no legitimate medical purpose than those who used cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens and inhalants. One particularly grim indicator of the scope of the problem is this: Of the 34,450 deaths due to drug overdose nationally in 2008, 20,044 involved a prescription drug.

The disheartening news comes from the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the survey is recognized as the primary source of information on the use of illicit drugs in the nation's civilian, noninstitutionalized population.

The problem hit home hard for Long Island on Father's Day in 2011 when David Laffer walked into a drug store in Medford in search of pain pills to feed his and his wife's drug habits. He shot four people dead before fleeing with more than 10,000 pain-relieving opioid pills.

Pharmacy robberies are just one manifestation of prescription drug abuse on Long Island. Others are a steady rise in overdose deaths, admissions to treatment programs, and a surge in driving-while-intoxicated cases involving a prescription drug as the intoxicant.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy is promoting a four- pronged prevention plan of education, proper medication disposal, law enforcement and monitoring. Long Island school and police officials have stepped up efforts on the first three. The attention must not flag.

New York State has responded to the crucial need for tighter monitoring with I-STOP -- the Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing -- a real-time database of prescriptions that will enable pharmacists to spot people who doctor shop for narcotics. It requires doctors and pharmacists to monitor a patient's prescription history before supplying pain killers containing oxycodone, the key ingredient in OxyContin, Percocet and Percodan. It's an important system. State officials should ensure it is rigorously utilized.

Such opioid drugs are invaluable when used appropriately by people in severe or chronic pain. But the surge in the number of prescriptions for pain relievers written nationally -- from 174 million in 2000 to 257 million in 2007 -- mirrors the increase in prescription drug abuse.

The nation is awash in addictive prescription drugs, and their abuse is ruining the lives of millions of people. That has to change.