A nation of masochists we are not: The most dispensed prescription drug in the U.S. was hydrocodone with acetaminophen, the drug formerly known as Vicodin. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved Vicodin, made by Abbott Laboratories (ABT), in 1984. In 2009 generic Vicodin was dispensed 128 million times in the U.S., according to data from research firm IMS Health in Norwalk, Conn. "Vicodin isn't just prescribed in the doctor's office," says analyst Les Funtleyder, of Miller Tabak in New York. "Dentists don't prescribe Lipitor, but they do prescribe Vicodin after a procedure. Most people are not big fans of pain."
Vicodin has also developed a reputation as a party drug, with 9.7 percent of U.S. high school seniors reporting nonmedical use of the drug in 2008, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A 2008 study by the Florida Medical Examiners Commission found that in 2007 legal opioids such as Vicodin and Oxy-Contin caused more than twice as many deaths in the state (2,328) as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine combined (989).
One reason Vicodin is so popular is it doesn't require doctors to write multiple copies of the prescriptions, as other opiate-based painkillers, such as morphine and oxycodone, do, says Richard Kravitz, a professor of internal medicine at the University of California at Davis. That extra work is designed to prevent abuse. "The easiest way to get pain medication into someone's hands is Vicodin," says Kravitz. "It's more uniformly effective, and you can write it without needing triplicate copies of the prescription. It's the path of least resistance." —Elizabeth Lopatto