(Photo : Creative Commons/Erik Derr)
Congress is considering tighter regulations on hydrocodone, the painkiller called "America's most abused narcotic."
Sold under the brand names Vicodin, Norco and Lortab, hydrocodone-based drugs "are some of the most potent and addictive narcotics on the market," explained U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) in a statement earlier this week.
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Buchanan is one of four lawmakers - two Republicans and two Democrats - who introduced the Safe Prescribing Act of 2013, which has already earned bipartisan support from more than 40 lawmakers who have signed as co-sponsors.
A report in the Los Angeles Times says prescription drugs, particularly narcotic painkillers like hydrocodone, cause or contribute to more deaths than heroin and cocaine together.
An investigation by the paper looked at 3,733 prescription drug-related fatalities in Southern California from 2006 through 2011. The study found hydrocodone was involved in 945 of the deaths, more than any other prescription medication.
Drug-related fatalities have in fact surpassed deaths from motor vehicle crashes, long the leading cause of accidental death in this country.
The proposed law would place medications containing hydrocodone in the same category as OxyContin, another opiate-based painkiller so potent and addictive, it's been referred to as synthetic heroin.
If passed, the new legislation would limit the amount of hydrocodone patients can be prescribed at one time --- as well as the number of refills. Pharmacies as well would have to follow stricter rules for handling and storing the drug.
The restrictions follow recommendations by a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel.
The United States consumes 99 percent of all hydrocodone in the world and doctors have prescribed the narcotic with few limits since it was introduced about four decades ago.
Because of the perception that it is less a risk than other narcotic painkillers, hydrocodone has been widely used by general practitioners and dentists.
"We recognize that there is a huge national problem with prescription drugs, and hydrocodone is the No. 1 drug of abuse in the country," Lynn Webster, president-elect of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, told the Times, explaining that any changes to the way hydrocodone is regulated should be made carefully.
"We need to do something different because what we're doing is not working," she said. "However, we are concerned that we don't really know what unintended consequences may occur from the rescheduling."