By Ed Rendell

Last year, 44,000 people died of drug overdoses, and 52 percent of them were related to prescription drugs. More than two million Americans are dependent on opioid painkillers, and every day, 44 Americans die of an overdose of these drugs.

When the cost of these painkillers becomes too great, addicts will turn to lower-cost heroin. In 2007, there were 373,000 heroin addicts in the United States, and 2,400 deaths resulted from heroin overdoses. By 2014, those numbers ballooned to 914,000 addicts and 10,500 overdose deaths. The overdose death rate among people ages 25 to 34 was five times higher in 2014 than it was in 1999.

As you read these statistics, you are probably stunned, horrified, saddened, and angry. But you'll put your newspaper or device down and go about dealing with the challenges of your life. As bad as these facts are, they don't affect you - it's not personal.

On Jan. 16, it became personal for me and for hundreds of Philadelphians when John Decker died. John was an incredible young man who had it all. If you read his obituary, one thing is clear: If John Decker, a gifted athlete and financial analyst, could fall victim to opioid painkiller addiction, then any young person could.

Most importantly, the three people to whom John's death was the most personal - his wonderful mom and dad, Tad and Candy, and his loving sister, Samantha - have decided to do something about this problem.

Tad asked me to speak at John's memorial service. I decided to try to find out what has caused this explosion of addiction, what our government is doing to stop it, and what we should be doing but are not. I found that in the early 1990s, opioid painkillers were prescribed only for long-term use by terminally ill patients suffering from diseases like cancer. They were prescribed on a short-term basis only for people recovering from surgery.

In the mid-'90s, all this changed as a result of an aggressive marketing campaign by pharmaceutical companies. Doctors responded by prescribing opioid painkillers for long-term, chronic, nonmalignant medical conditions like lower back pain. It often led to ridiculous treatment. A friend of mine told me that after his hernia operation, his doctor wrote a prescription for 30 Percocet pills. Ridiculous! He didn't need them and took only Motrin.

So what has our government done to slow down the epidemic? Virtually nothing. In fact, you can make a case that it has responded to special interests and failed to take deterrent action. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration unbelievably authorized the use of OxyContin for 11- to 16-year-olds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have delayed issuing a directive aimed at curbing overprescription of opioid painkillers. Six U.S. senators wrote the CDC that they were "troubled by reports that the delay occurred after opposition from companies that have a significant financial stake in the role of opioid painkillers."

However, despite this gloomy picture, I believe there is a clear path to dramatically reducing the use of opioid painkillers and heroin. The only question is, will our leaders have the courage to stand up to these special interests and go down that path?

First, Congress should pressure the FDA to reverse its directive allowing OxyContin to be prescribed to 11- to 16-year-olds. Second, it should continue to pressure the CDC to issue those guidelines.

Third, Congress should immediately pass the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, whose main sponsor is Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.). The act would strengthen the prescription-drug monitoring programs that exist in most states, and make those programs interoperable across state lines and available to all doctors and pharmacies.

These monitoring programs are essential to curbing overprescription. They can tell the authorities when an individual goes to three different doctors in the same week for the same drug or when a single doctor issues far too many unnecessary prescriptions for painkillers.

The act would also provide additional funding to create drug courts, which have had some success in getting addicts into treatment. Treatment isn't always successful, but it can be, and today, only one in 10 addicts is in a treatment program. It would also provide additional funding for treatment programs and to make naloxone, a powerful antidote for overdoses, available to first responders.

I believe we can curb this epidemic if we all make it personal. We need to pressure Congress, our state legislatures, and our government agencies to act. We should demand that medical schools include the dangers of overprescription in their curriculums so that young doctors understand the role their profession has played in aiding this explosion. We should demand that the American Medical Association and local prosecutors crack down on "dirty docs" who overprescribe for their own financial gain.

It has to be personal for all of us to succeed. Our goal is simple: no more John Deckers, no more kids anywhere.

Ed Rendell is a former governor of Pennsylvania and a former mayor of Philadelphia. rendell@ballardspahr.com