Chicago Sun-Times / Art Golab

People living in Chicago’s suburbs are prescribed up to four times as many pain pills per person as those who live in the city, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis shows.

In the southern tip of Illinois, it’s up to seven times as much, according to the analysis of federal Drug Enforcement Administration records of the numbers of prescriptions written for the two most popular prescription pain drugs — oxycodone and hydrocodone.

Oxycodone, the more powerful of the two, is the key ingredient in the brand-name prescription painkillers OxyContin, Percocet and Percodan. Hydrocodone, which like oxycodone is an opiate-based drug, is the main ingredient in Vicodin, Norco and Lortab.

The north and northwest suburbs — areas that have ZIP codes that begin with 600 — had the highest per-person consumption of prescription oxycodone in the Chicago area, the DEA data shows. These ZIP codes include some of the Chicago area’s wealthiest municipalities.

Suburbs to the west and south — with ZIPs beginning with 601, 603, 604, 605 and 609 — had the second-highest oxycodone consumption in the metroplitan area.

And Chicago, along with close-in suburbs in the 602, 607 and 608 ZIP codes, had the lowest consumption of prescription oxycodone per person in the area, as well in all of Illinois.

The patterns for hydrocodone were similar.

It’s not that suburbanites suffer more pain, experts say. Instead, they say the prescription pattern reflects that suburbanites tend to have more money, better insurance and more connections to doctors who can prescribe the potent painkillers.

And that sometimes lead to more problems with abuse and addiction, says Jeanette Wiener, a registered nurse and addiction counselor at New Hope Recovery in Chicago. Wiener says she’s been seeing more people from the suburbs seeking help for pill addictions.

“My experience has been that you’re going to see more pills being used in the suburbs — both by people who have legitimate pain and people who use it for addictive purposes — because they have access to physicians, and they have money,” says Wiener.

Dr. Sandeep Amin, an anesthesiogist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, says that in recent years more clinics dispensing powerful painkillers have opened in the suburbs.

“You’re seeing now the proliferation of some of these clinics that are willing to dispense narcotics to patients,” Amin says. “It’s a matter of patients getting easier access to some of these medications in the suburban locations, whereas, in the past, you had a fixed number of clinics that were comfortable or willing to give out medication.”

Amin says a state-run system that tracks painkiller prescriptions helps prevent abuse but doesn’t work as well along Illinois’ borders, where people can just cross into Wisconsin or Missouri to fill prescriptions more than once. He says that could explain the some of the higher consumption in the north suburbs and in Southern Illinois. Amin believes a federal prescription monitoring system would prevent this.

An analysis of the DEA data by The Associated Press found that the total amount of oxycodone prescribed nationwide increased by 275 percent from 2000 to 2010, while prescribed hydrocodone increased 148 percent. The national data showed that much of this growth occurred in suburbs.

Dr. Ileana Arias, principal deputy director at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, joined other health officials from around the nation earlier this month at a conference in Orlando to publicize the escalation in prescription use and abuse.

“This is an epidemic. And at CDC, we do not use the word epidemic very lightly,” Arias said. “The problem is, unfortunately, a wicked problem.”