WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, WV: At the July 25th summer meeting of the National Governors Association there was an unexpected bipartisan call to arms against drug abuse.
Oklahoma's Republican governor Mary Fallin described the prescription drug epidemic as "the enemy within," a threat to national security equal to Islamic terror. Steve Beshear, Kentucky's Democratic governor, stunned the audience with the statistic that more Americans are dying from drug overdoses than die on the nation's highways.
As governors from up two-dozen states listened, Dr. Debra Houry from the Centers for Disease Control said drug overdoses caused 145,000 deaths over the past decade. It is an epidemic, she said, spreading at an alarming rate with "drug related deaths up by 400% since 1999."
Despite appeals to hold back, she said physicians continue to overprescribe powerful painkillers, which in medical terms are opioids, addictive opium-related synthetic compounds whose excessive use impacts the brain like heroin. She said 260 million prescriptions for pain killers were written in 2012, "enough for every adult in the country to have his own bottle of pills." Common painkillers are Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicodin.
Dr. Houry cited research showing that the recent upsurge in heroin use is connected to the overuse of painkillers. Pain pill abusers, she said, are 40 times more likely than others to move on to heroin.
Connecticut's Democratic governor Dannel Malloy said heroin use has exploded because it is cheaper than painkillers. The heroin now on the streets, he said, is so pure that it is increasingly killing first time users, often young people between 17 and 26. This cohort, " who think they'll live forever," typically become addicted by first snorting crushed pills.
Pointing to research that most abusers initially get pills from friends and relatives, Malloy called on doctors "to stop writing long-term prescriptions." If painkillers are prescribed for only a brief period for dental extractions, he said, that should also be the case for those who have had knee or hip replacements.
Former California Republican congresswoman Mary Bono, whose son suffered from substance abuse, said if 100 dolphins washed up everyday on Florida beaches there would be a national outcry. Yet, she said, even more Americans--43,000--are dying annually from drug overdoses.
Governor Rick Snyder, Michigan Republican, agreed that the scope of the problem is huge. "When I recently asked sheriffs in rural Michigan what is their number one problem," he said, "they replied prescription drug abuse."
Lieutenant Patrick Glynn, a drug specialist at the Quincy, MA police department, emphasized treatment and said drug abuse is a disease and not a crime. But he said people "have too many pills in the medicine cabinet," often the first target of addicts breaking into homes.
Glynn is a proponent of first responders carrying narcon (Naloxone), a quick response drug that reverses the effects of opioid poisoning which attack receptors in the brain, causing the user to stop breathing.
Health and Human Services secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell told the governors the Obama administration wants to devote an additional $100 million to fight the drug addiction epidemic.
Former congresswoman Bono called the crisis an abuse of medicine, "a previously unknown silent killer," that is impacting too many American families.
A version of this story appeared on marketwatch.com. Read more of Barry's work at econbarry.com.