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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released a new report that undoubtedly surprised many across our nation: In Florida alone, prescription (Rx) drug overdoses claimed 16,650 lives from 2003 to 2009 — an average of eight deaths a day.

I’m sure they are wondering: What in the world is going on in the Sunshine State?

For me, and so many others on the frontline of fighting prescription pill abuse in Florida, the report documents an epidemic that we have lived with for more than a decade.

Rx drug overdoses have been a devastating problem here, spread by the silence and misunderstanding over addiction and by the underworld “pill mill” economy run by rogue doctors and pharmacists who encourage “doctor shopping.”

We weren’t shocked by the CDC numbers showing that annual prescription drug overdose deaths jumped by 61 percent, from 1,804 to 2,905, during those years. Prescription medications, for example, were implicated in 76 percent of all drug overdose deaths in Florida, while illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine were implicated in 33 percent of the deaths.

Prescription drug abuse is, unfortunately, a part of daily life across Florida. You can’t overlook it.

Go on the Internet, turn on the radio, look at the billboards along highways and you’ll find countless advertisements for pain clinics offering incentives to visit their many locations, which are conveniently placed at major intersections and strip malls.

Anti-drug advocates have done their best to counter this ad blitz and the general perception, especially among teenagers, that misusing Rx pills isn’t dangerous.

Following the back-to-back overdose deaths of several teenagers, Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education (NOPE) Task Force expanded its blunt school presentations to highlight how easy it is to overdose on pharmaceuticals.

Our partner agency, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, established a solid profile of a typical victim of a drug overdose, based on information compiled from hundreds of drug-death investigations. This profile is now being used to educate the public about realities of who is truly susceptible to prescription abuse.

Additonally, NOPE created support groups to a growing number of families who have lost loved ones, to an accidental overdose or alcohol or drug-related incident, offering a place to seek comfort and guidance among fellow mourners. We also designed a handbook for police officers and family members that provides guidance on coping with death and understanding drug addiction.

And that’s just our work. Many other organizations in Florida have done their share to highlight the deadly effects of prescription drug abuse.

Still, as we now know from the CDC statists, none of this was enough to stop the fast spread of the epidemic.

Today, we have new and powerful forces in our court: a governor, attorney general and state legislators who have passed measures to control excessive prescriptions by pain doctors and clinics; and President Obama, whose administration has drafted a comprehensive action plan on prescription drug abuse.

Tragically, hundreds of people are still dying from drug overdoses in the Sunshine State. But hopefully, in the very near future, these new government initiatives, along with the grassroots educational efforts, will bring those numbers down and end this terrible chapter in our state’s history.

Karen H. Perry, Executive Director of NOPE Task Force

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