When former Eagles defensive tackle Sam Rayburn acknowledged he had become addicted to prescription painkillers after retirement, he was not joining an exclusive club.

Hip-hop artist Eminem, star quarterback Brett Favre, conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, and American Idol judge Paula Abdul have acknowledged a problem with narcotic painkillers. So do a growing list of average Americans.

Especially young Americans.

"It's been growing [among teenagers] over the last several years," said Sharon Levy, medical director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Children's Hospital in Boston. "Misuse or abuse of prescription medication is now more common than any other illicit drug except for marijuana."

According to a survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 4.6 percent of young adults in 2007 said they had used a prescription pain reliever for nonmedical purposes in the previous month.

The White House's Office of National Drug Control policy said 2,500 youths ages 12 to 17 abuse a prescription pain reliever for the first time every day.

"It's actually frightening," said Levy, a University of Pennsylvania graduate. "The last couple of years, we're really seeing increasing numbers of kids who start their drug history with these prescription drugs. You used to think of marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes as the gateway drugs. It's really a frightening shift because those are really addictive drugs."

Levy said narcotic painkillers are very dangerous, "but they also do have a place for people with acute or chronic pain." That presents its own problem, Levy said. "A lot of kids think, 'This is prescribed to my grandmother, how dangerous can it be?' "

She said the body is equipped to not become addicted to painkillers if the medicine is actually attacking acute pain.

Alex Stalcup of the New Leaf Treatment Center in Lafayette, Calif., said he had treated many former professional athletes, including football players.

"Many people have the notion they are using these things to get high," Stalcup said. "It has nothing to do with getting high. They're not getting high. It's a desperate dance to keep from withdrawal."

Favre entered the NFL's drug-treatment program in 1996 because of an addiction to the painkiller Vicodin.

Last month, former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf was indicted on drug and burglary charges, accused of breaking into an apartment in October and stealing hydrocodone, which had been prescribed to an injured football player. Leaf was working as an assistant coach at West Texas A&M.

Of the athletes he has treated for addiction to painkillers, Stalcup said, "I can't think of anybody who came in with a typical addiction history."

Everybody started the same way Rayburn did - "because of pain," Stalcup said.