The recent move by the Food and Drug Administration to place greater controls over a range of pain-killing medication will make it more difficult for those who abuse or deal the drugs to procure them.
The question is, What took the FDA so long?
Four years ago, the Drug Enforcement Administration asked the FDA to consider stricter regulation of the distribution of so-called "hydrocodone-combination" drugs. At that point, the nation's ongoing epidemic of prescription drug abuse was already out of control.
Hydrocodone, itself, was already classified as a Schedule II drug, meaning that it is difficult to legally procure more than a 90-day supply without a new prescription from a physician. No phone or fax prescriptions are allowed.
But painkillers such as Vicodin and Lortab that combine hydrocodone with acetaminophen are not classified as Schedule II, and it is possible to receive six months worth of pills on refills from a single prescription.
The FDA's recommendation, after expected ratification by the DEA and the Department of Health and Human Resources, would place Vicodin, Lortab and their ilk — hydrocodone-combination drugs — on the Schedule II list.
This would be step forward in the complicated battle against the rising tide of prescription drug abuse across the country. Consider the following prescription painkiller statistics:
— Sales account for about $7.3 billion annually in the United States.
— Illegal prescription drug use and distribution is fast overtaking that of street drugs such as heroin and cocaine.
— About 15,000 people in the United States died in 2008 from prescription painkiller overdoses, up more than threefold from 1999.
— In 2009, about 500,000 emergency room visits sprung from misuse of prescription painkillers.
— Non-medical uses of these drugs costs health insurers an estimated $72.5 million each year. And, or course, those costs are passed along to those who pay health-insurance premiums.