Our great state of West Virginia is being devastated by prescription drug abuse. The mortality rate in West Virginia from drug overdoses is the highest in the country, and we've had a 605 percent increase in deaths since 1999. Today, hydrocodone is the most frequently prescribed opiate in the United States. More than 131 million prescriptions for hydrocodone-containing products were filled for 47 million people -- enough to give every man, woman and child in America 24 Vicodin pills. At the same time, opioid abuse has jumped 287 percent in 11 years, and approximately 16,000 Americans die each year from abusing opioid painkillers, like hydrocodone.
This isn't a story that can be explained with just facts and statistics, it's one that can only be understood by hearing the stories of those impacted. When I first became Senator, I traveled to Oceana Middle School, where I had expected to talk about the importance of receiving a good education and working hard to gain the necessary skills to be successful in the workforce. Instead, I heard personal stories from eleven-year-olds who spoke candidly about the ways that drugs were tearing apart their families, their homes and their communities. As tears trickled down their faces, they shared how they rarely played outside because too many needles coated the streets and drug deals often took place right in front of them.
It is one thing to hear about overdoses and addiction from doctors, medical experts or police officers who deal with prescription drug abuse cases every day. It is another thing entirely to sit across from an eleven-year-old girl who is fighting through tears to describe how her home life is under siege because of addiction. Her father was hurt in the coal mines and rapidly became addicted to his painkillers, causing her family to lose everything. As I listened to her story, I couldn't help but think that this young girl had to grow up far too fast, only for her adolescence to be ruined by such a small, yet potent drug. It's heartbreaking.
As the people of West Virginia's representative in Washington, I could not simply stand by and forget those students and their stories, their passion and their brave commitment to turn their community around into a drug-free region. I thank them for everything that they shared with me that day, because I left that schoolroom promising to bring their fight, and our fight, to the United States Senate. A promise I will keep.
In 2012, I introduced the Safe Prescribing Act to do what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had refused to do, or been unwilling to do for more than fourteen years: reclassify hydrocodone combination drugs, which are highly addictive painkillers like Vicodin and Lortab, from a Schedule III to a Schedule II controlled substance. In other words, doctors could not prescribe an unlimited amount of pills and pharmacies would have to secure their supply much like they do the ingredients used to produce meth.
Thankfully, after two years of talking to health care experts, addiction specialists, law enforcement, advocacy groups and drug abuse victims; after writing several official letters to the FDA; after delivering multiple speeches on the Senate floor; after testifying at the FDA's own advisory panel; and after more than fourteen years of the FDA's deafening silence, I am pleased and relieved the agency finally agreed to reschedule hydrocodone from a Schedule III to a Schedule II controlled substance. This reclassification will help make sure patients who truly need these pills to ease excruciating pain will be able to receive physician-filled prescriptions, while also preventing these addictive pills from falling into the wrong hands to abuse.
However, just as we could begin to celebrate a victory in the war against the prescription drug abuse epidemic, the FDA approved, the very next day, another controversial new painkiller, Zohydro. Incredibly, this drug is a pure form of hydrocodone that has up to ten times as much hydrocodone as Vicodin and Lortab and will come in a formulation that can be easily crushed, snorted and injected. Doctors and medical experts have warned that the consumption of just two tablets in one sitting can result in death. Zohydro would be the most powerful hydrocodone combination drug ever to be sold for public use.
The hydrocodone statistics speak for themselves, which are alone terrifying and chilling. So how can the FDA exhibit its awareness about the addictive nature of hydrocodone by recommending reclassification, but then approve a powerful hydrocodone drug that can be easily abused? I asked that very question several times to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg through letters, unanswered phone messages and finally, a phone conversation. To date, I have yet to receive adequate responses.
After weeks of failed attempts to reason with the FDA and repeatedly requesting that the agency change its course on selling this dangerous drug, I felt compelled to introduce legislation to ban Zohydro.
This new drug poses a severe threat to our communities in West Virginia and across our country, and I will not backtrack on the progress we have made in the war against prescription drugs. Unless this product is reformulated to prevent abuse, I strongly believe Zohydro will only fuel addiction and death in this nation. It must be kept off the market for the well-being of our country, especially our families and our youth.
From the moment I heard those eleven-year-olds' genuine and heart-wrenching stories, I pledged to bring this fight to Washington and play a lead role in curbing the prescription drug abuse epidemic in West Virginia and across this great nation. From reclassifying hydrocodone controlled substances to banning Zohydro from the marketplace, I will continue to do everything I can to keep that promise for our families and communities today and for our future generations to come.