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Prescription drug abuse is more than a public health epidemic – it’s a national tragedy.

As Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, I have held several nationally-televised hearings on the problem.

As Honorary Chairman of Mothers Against Prescription Drug Abuse (MAPDA), I have witnessed its pain first-hand.

And one undeniable fact stands out: Prescription drug abuse is getting worse, and a comprehensive national strategy for combating it is desperately needed.

As Americans, we rally around efforts to fight breast cancer, childhood diseases and other serious health threats. But for far too long, there have only been hushed whispers about prescription drug abuse – now the fastest growing drug problem in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So as the death toll from prescription drug overdoses continues to rise sharply, it’s time to move this story from the obituary page to the front page where it belongs.

It’s time to realize that we can’t simply wish this horrific problem away. Not with more than 20,000 people a year dying from it. Not when the number of babies born addicted to the class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers has tripled in the past decade. Not when nearly one out of 4 high school seniors has used prescription painkillers.

Rest assured, if 20,000 people died each year from food poisoning, Americans would demand immediate action.

So why has it taken so long for our governmental agencies to get serious about combating prescription drug abuse?

The Food and Drug Administration’s Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) for Extended-Release and Long-Acting Opioids is a classic example of a plodding agency muddling its way through piles of indisputable evidence.

Can anyone explain why the FDA took more than three years before deciding this month that drug companies which make “extended-release or long-acting painkillers” must provide expanded education to prescribers and consumers about the dangers and risks of addiction? How many people died needlessly in the meantime? Instead of three years, it should have taken the FDA about three minutes to take action after looking at the skyrocketing statistics and horror stories all across America.

But the FDA isn’t alone in the blame. The DEA, NIDA, SAMHSA and even Congress have all been slow to react.

So what’s the answer? I believe one critically important first step is to do a better job of monitoring and limiting access to prescription drugs containing controlled-release oxycodone hydrochloride, including the popular painkiller OxyContin.

The next step is to make certain that doctors, dentists, nurse practitioners and other prescribers are up to speed on the dangers of addiction.

Originally, OxyContin was intended to be prescribed only for severe pain as a way to help patients dealing with late-stage cancer and other severe illnesses. Today, however, more and more people across America are being prescribed OxyContin, as well as other generic oxycodone drugs, for less severe reasons – clinically known as “moderate pain” – greatly expanding the availability and potential for abuse of these powerfully-addictive narcotics.

While we’re starting to see some progress in the fight against prescription drug abuse, a lot more clearly has to be done.

By better coordinating the efforts of local, state and national agencies – and by reducing the supply of highly addictive opioid painkillers – I am convinced that we can eventually save thousands of lives, and spare millions of American families from the devastating heartache of addiction.

Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-CA, serves as Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade

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