A new drug epidemic is threating older Americans. It is not one of the usual suspects: heroin, cocaine, or meth. It is a legal drug which your doctor can prescribe as a painkiller. Maybe you even have some pills in your medicine cabinet now.

According to “The Opioid Menace,” an article in the June 2017 issue of AARP Bulletin, “Almost one-third of all Medicare patients–nearly 12 million people—were prescribed opioid painkillers by their physicians in 2015. That same year, 2.7 million Americans over age 50 abused painkillers, meaning they took them for reasons or in amounts beyond what the doctor prescribed.”

How did this happen? “We overestimated the benefits of opioids and underestimated the risks,” says Deborah Dowell, senior medical adviser at the CDC. “We assumed without adequate evidence that they would work as well long term as they did in the short term.” Pharmaceutical companies marketed aggressively to physicians, and by the late 1990s, doctors innocently wrote prescriptions for OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet and other opioid painkillers. Long term use led to higher levels of addiction and an increased number of drug overdoses.

In August of 2016, then Surgeon General Murthy wrote a letter to every doctor in America. The letter read as follows: “Nearly two decades ago, we were encouraged to be more aggressive about treating pain, often without enough training and support to do so safely.”

“This coincided with heavy marketing of opioids to doctors. Many of us were even taught—incorrectly—that opioids are not addictive when used as pain relief. The results have been devastating.”

Last year the CDC issued guidelines recommending that doctors drug-test their patients before and during opioid therapy, to ensure that the medications are taken properly.

What can you do to protect yourself and your family? You have the right to question your doctor about a new drug he is prescribing for you. You even have a right to refuse the drug. Do some research on reputable sites on the internet. For example, did you know that Tramadol, an opioid pain medication for moderate to moderately severe pain, should not be used if a drug addict or alcoholic is living in the home?

Be aware of the connection between legal opioids and the illegal opioid heroin. Over time, opioid users tend to build up a tolerance for their legal drug. In addition, the prescription drug may be harder to obtain. This may lead to use of heroin, a highly addictive illegal drug.