Over the past 10 years the number of overdose deaths from prescription painkillers—also known as opioid analgesics—has tripled, from 4,000 people in 1999 to more than 15,000 people every year in the U.S. today. Prescription pain medication now causes more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. In 2010 one in 20 Americans older than age 12 reported taking painkillers recreationally; some steal from pharmacies or buy them from a dealer, but most have a doctor's prescription or gain access to pills through friends and relatives.
Yet millions of people legitimately rely on these medications to cope with the crippling pain they face every day. How do we make sure prescription opioids are readily available to those who depend on them for medical relief but not so available that they become easily abused? Here we break down the steps taken at various levels—and the experts' recommendations for future interventions—to curb prescription opioid addiction and overdose in the U.S.