WASHINGTON — The White House drug czar and the state attorneys general of Florida and Kentucky told Congress on Thursday that prescription drug abuse is "a national crisis" and efforts to fight it will falter without better cooperation among states and better education of the medical community and the public.
Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that the issue was "not on the radar screen" until recently, but that prescription drug overdoses, commonly from a pain medication called OxyContin, have become the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, surpassing gunshot wounds and car crashes.
It's an economic problem as well, costing health care providers, employers and taxpayers $56 billion in 2007, he said.
"We weren't paying attention to it," Kerlikowske told the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade. "That was a huge mistake."
About 100 people nationwide die every day from drug overdoses.
Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway said prescription drug abuse has a devastating impact on poor, rural communities, particularly in Eastern Kentucky, where it accounts for a large percentage of crime. Conway described Kentucky as the third or fourth most overmedicated state, and said that the actual numbers might be worse.
"I'm sick and tired of losing an entire generation to prescription drug abuse," he said.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said the epidemic has other consequences. She said at one hospital in Tampa, 20 percent of the babies born were born addicted.
"Imagine the worst addict you see on TV going through withdrawals — that's how these babies come into this world," she said.