Public health officials are warning of an epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse, pointing to a five-fold increase in fatal overdoses since 1990.

More than 27,000 people, a record high, died from overdoses of such powerful drugs as Oxycontin and Vicodin in 2007, according to data presented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at a forum last week in Atlanta. “Just about the only mortality statistic that is getting worse is death from prescription opioid abuse,” said CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden.

The featured panelist at the “Grand Rounds” CDC event was U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, who said the Obama administration has made combating prescription painkiller abuse a top priority. In its proposed National Drug Control Strategy, the administration has called for a 15 percent reduction in drug-induced deaths over five years.

Nationwide, the overall number of drug-induced deaths — which are, in large part, attributable to prescription painkillers — is approaching the number of deaths from motor vehicle crashes.

In some states, the problem is particularly severe. In Ohio, more than 1,300 people died from accidental drug overdoses in 2009, overtaking the fatality toll from car wrecks. Gov. John Kasich announced Monday that former Attorney General Betty Montgomery will advise a new, multi-agency task force tackling the issue of prescription drug abuse.

Mac McArthur, executive director of the Transitions Inc. substance abuse rehabilitation center in nearby northern Kentucky, said he has witnessed a surge in the problem, too. “We see a lot more young people overdosing than we did even five years ago,” he told WLWT, a Cincinnati TV station.

At the CDC event, MedPage Today reports, officials called for more help from states, citing a new Washington state law that requires physicians to contact a pain specialist if patients exceed a certain dosage of a painkiller and still aren’t feeling better.

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