The number of overdose deaths from powerful painkillers more than tripled over a decade, the U.S. government reported Tuesday — a trend that one health official called an epidemic, but one that can be stopped.
Prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin and methadone led to the deaths of almost 15,000 people in 2008, including actor Heath Ledger. That's more than three times the 4,000 deaths from narcotics in 1999.
Such painkillers "are meant to help people who have severe pain," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued the report. "They are, however, highly addictive."
The report shows nearly 5 percent of Americans ages 12 and older said they've abused painkillers in the past year — using them without a prescription or just for the high.
The overdose deaths reflect the spike in the number of narcotic painkillers prescribed every year — enough to give every American a one-month supply, Frieden said.
Prescriptions rose as doctors aimed to better treat pain and as new painkillers hit the market.
Frieden and White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said states need to take sharp actions to reverse the long-running trend.
States oversee prescription practices and can rigorously monitor prescriptions and crack down on "pill mills" and "doctor shopping" by patients, Frieden said.
Doctors should limit prescriptions — giving only a three-day supply for acute pain, for example — and look for alternative treatments, he said.
"For chronic pain, narcotics should be the last resort," he added.
Other findings of the CDC report:
— New Mexico had the highest overdose death rate (27 per 100,000) and Nebraska had the lowest (5.5). The national rate was 11.9.
— Fatal overdoses were more likely in men, middle-aged adults and whites and American Indians.
— Sales of prescription painkillers are highest in the Southeast and Northwest.
Frieden noted the wide differences between overdose death rates among states. For example, West Virginia's rate is about 26 per 100,000 while neighboring Virginia's rate is only 9.
"This highlights the importance of states getting policies right on preventing drug abuse," he said.