NEW YORK (AP) — The number of overdose deaths from powerful painkillers more than tripled over a decade, the government reported Tuesday — a trend that a U.S. health official called an epidemic, but one that can be stopped.

Prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin and methadone led to the deaths of almost 15,000 people in 2008, including actor Heath Ledger. That's more than three times the 4,000 deaths from narcotics in 1999.

Such painkillers "are meant to help people who have severe pain," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which issued the report. "They are, however, highly addictive."

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