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FDA finally acts to tighten restrictions on highly addictive hydrocodone painkillers

The Food and Drug Administration has finally acknowledged what many have been saying for decades, that tighter controls are needed on some commonly used narcotic painkillers.

The FDA is recommending steps that would make it harder to get prescriptions for widely abused drugs containing the narcotic hydrocodone. Those products will finally get the same treatment as more powerful painkillers such as OxyContin.

The drugs in question contain a combination of hydrocodone and over-the-counter painkillers like acetaminophen or aspirin and are sold either as generics or under brand names like Vicodin or Lortab. The medications are prescribed to treat pain from injuries, arthritis, dental extractions and other problems.

The changes would reduce the number of refills patients could get before returning to their doctor, and patients would be required to take a prescription to a pharmacy, instead of having a doctor call it in. These are significant changes.

The recommendation, pushed by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, requires the approval of the Department of Health and Human Services and adoption by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which already backs the measure. Those opposed, including industry lobbyists and doctors groups such as the American Medical Association, complain that it will have a negative impact on patients.

Indeed, we sympathize with patients coping with painful conditions. These people will certainly be inconvenienced by now having to make more trips to the doctor and pharmacy. But the highly addictive hydrocodone products have become so widely abused that something had to be done.

Experts have estimated that more than 100,000 people have died in the last decade from overdoses involving these drugs. New York is among the states that have been affected by the increased abuse of prescription painkillers, especially among young people.

The News’ award-winning March 2011 investigative series “Rx for Danger” laid bare the growing problem of prescription drug abuse in New York, where prescription opioids have become more popular among drug abusers than cocaine. Western New York is a hotbed for some of the most abused opioids, including hydrocodone and oxycodone.

The state’s Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing, known as I-STOP, an online database that allows doctors and pharmacies to track prescriptions, was created partly in response to The News’ series.

The stories from families who lost loved ones to the abuse of prescription painkillers are heartbreaking, and those stories are repeated around the country.

The FDA’s recommendation for tighter controls on how hydrocodone medications are prescribed is an important step in reducing those tragedies.