It’s a sobering statistic: Prescription painkillers are the leading cause of drug overdose deaths in the U.S., snuffing out more lives than heroin and cocaine combined, according to a report released earlier this year by an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Washington, D.C.

The advisory panel suggested that the FDA have tighter restrictions on a group of popular and frequently abused pain medications that includes Lortab and Vicodin. An estimated 100 million Americans–many of them uninsured African-Americans and Hispanics–suffer from debilitating pain each year, according to a report released in 2011 by the Institute of Medicine. The U.S. spends more than $635 billion annually to treat chronic pain, with back injuries being the most common root of chronic pain sufferers.

Under the proposal, the pain meds would be placed in the most highly regulated drug category, which now includes Oxycontin, Percocet, opium and morphine. These pills are tougher to get and refills generally require a new prescription.

The report by the FDA advisory council comes on the heels of another comprehensive study and poll released a few months ago by the University of Michigan’s Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. The study revealed an alarming rate of abuse of narcotic pain meds by teens and parents’ obliviousness to the magnitude of the problem.

“Recent estimates are that one in four high school seniors have used a narcotic pain medicine,” said Sarah Clark, associate director of Children’s Health and Evaluation and Research at the University of Michigan.

She added that parents are often unaware of the abuse of narcotic pain meds by their children due to the fact that the drugs are usually prescribed by the family doctor. “That ‘safe’ prescription may serve as a readily accessible supply of potentially lethal drugs for children and teens,” Clark said.

Many physicians caution against using escalating doses or combining pain meds in order to ease pain–a common practice that can lead to dependence and addiction.

To view the complete University of Michigan poll and pain study data, visit