Prescribed by the tens of millions in recent years for their power to relieve otherwise crippling pain in the victims of disease and injury, powerful synthetic or semi-synthetic narcotic painkillers with trade names like Vicodin or Lortab have turned into a $7.3 billion-per-year business. Yet they also pose a major public health risk because of their ready availability and addictiveness to many patients.

Abuse of prescription medications is overtaking that of “street drugs” such as heroin and cocaine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spoke of a pain-pill overdose “epidemic” that cost 15,000 lives in the United States in 2008, up from 4,000 in 1999. Nearly half a million ER visits in 2009 were because of people misusing or abusing prescription painkillers, the CDC said.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration announced an important action aimed at reversing this dangerous trend.

The FDA recommended that the federal government add so-called hydrocodone combination products to the list of Schedule II drugs, which would make it significantly more difficult for people to obtain more than a 90-day supply without visiting a doctor for a new prescription. Under current rules, it is possible to get six months’ worth of pills on a single, refillable prescription.

The FDA recommendation is not the final word on the subject, but the Drug Enforcement Administration and Department of Health and Human Services are likely to ratify it. Considering that the prescription-drug epidemic was well underway four years ago, the only bad news is that it took so long for the federal bureaucracy to reach this sound conclusion.