In just two months, 16 homes in Edgartown have been broken into by thieves looking for prescription drugs. In four of those houses, the burglars got what they were looking for.

The numbers are evidence of several things. First, the rapid growth of the problem of prescription drug abuse on Martha’s Vineyard. Second, the over-prescription of opioid painkillers by the medical community. Third, the tendency of Vineyarders, like all Americans, to hoard medications they often don’t need. And fourth, ironically, the numbers just might be a measure of the success of the efforts of authorities to deal with the prescription drug abuse problem.

Tom Bennett, senior clinical advisor with the Island Counseling Center at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, explains the logic: As addicts and the people who illegally supply drugs to addicts have found it harder to get their supplies from other sources, they have been forced to resort to busting into people’s houses to get them.

“Unfortunately, as we begin to tighten the reins on supply, this is what will happen,” said Mr. Bennett of the spate of break-ins.

There are moves afoot to cut off this source of supply too. But first, some more statistics about the problem, which has been termed the epidemic of the medicine cabinet.

On Tuesday this week, the Obama administration unveiled a plan to address the problem of the misuse of prescription painkillers, along with a report on its magnitude and frightening growth.

In many states, drug overdoses now are the biggest cause of accidental deaths. Prescription drug abuse is the nation’s fastest-growing drug problem. Nearly one-third of people aged 12 and over who used drugs for the first time in 2009 began by using a prescription drug nonmedically. They are the second most-abused category of drugs after marijuana.

From 1997 to 2007, the milligram-per-person use of prescription opioids in the U.S. increased from 74 milligrams to 369 milligrams, an increase of 402 per cent. In 2000, retail pharmacies dispensed 174 million prescriptions for opioids; by 2009, 257 million prescriptions were dispensed, an increase of 48 per cent.

And opiate overdoses, once almost always due to heroin use, are now increasingly due to abuse of prescription painkillers.

That’s the big picture. The smaller picture is that things are somewhat better in Massachusetts, in that many of the steps that the federal report recommended taking to address the epidemic have already been taken here. And compared with the state as a whole, things may be somewhat better on the Island.

But it’s hard to tell.

Michael Botticelli, director of the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services at Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said the most recent available figures suggest the Vineyard has less of an opiate problem than the rest of Massachusetts, both in terms of nonfatal overdoes and opiate-related deaths.

“When we looked at financial year 2009 hospitalizations — the most recent figures we have for this is either emergency department visits or inpatient hospitalization stays — the Vineyard was the lowest in the state,” he said.

“When we looked at opiate-related deaths — 2008 is the most recent year for which we have full data — the Vineyard had three for that year. During that same period Boston had 52, New Bedford had 26.”

But other numbers, the anecdotal evidence available to local doctors and substance abuse experts, not to mention the recent spate of drug-related break-ins, suggest otherwise.

A 2006 report on the health status of the Vineyard found a high incidence of mental health and substance abuse problems here compared with the rest of the state.

All the figures are now somewhat dated, and the problem is fast-evolving here as everywhere else.

“I can tell you all the Island police departments are seeing a huge increase in pills,” said Det. Sgt. Chris Dolby, who is leading the investigation into the Edgartown break-ins.

“Without question, pills are now the most abused substance after marijuana and alcohol,” he said.

And the problem is all the more difficult because it involves drugs — dilaudid, oxycontin, oxycodone, codeine — that are not illicit in the way most drugs of dependence are. Yet they are part of the same family of drugs as the illegal one everyone knows about: heroin. Some are stronger than others; they all help control pain, but they also have the capacity to create tolerance and dependence.

They are legal, if controlled, and are beneficial if used correctly.

The trick is determining who really needs them.

Dr. Jeffrey Zack, head of the emergency department at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, explained the doctor’s dilemma in prescribing them.

“Pain is a very subjective thing and it’s very difficult to assess someone’s level of pain. What’s not very painful to someone might be excruciating to someone else,” he said.

And sometimes doctors and dentists give out prescriptions on the basis that a patient might be in pain later.

“What happens if the dentist doesn’t give you the pain medication, the anesthesia wears off and you’re in excruciating pain, and you can’t get hold of your dentist? So, a lot of times they’re sort of prophylactically giving these things out. How do you treat pain especially if you’re doing it before there is pain?” Dr. Zack said.

Different medical professionals handle it differently.

“My personal opinion,” Dr. Zack said, “is that yes, we — medicine in general — have been overprescribing opiates for pain control.”

He said over the past couple of months he had been talking with other medical providers about it.

“Currently what the hospital is trying to develop is a system to help folks with this. We’re taking this very seriously. I’ve had discussions with others on the Island about how we best approach this as a team . . . as a community, to be part of the solution, not part of the problem” Dr. Zack said.

Clearly, state and federal authorities have come to a similar view. Part of the approach to dealing with the problem has been to better educate medical professionals about appropriate prescribing.

Said Michael Botticelli: “For many folks who have chronic illness these are lifesaving . . . they give people a quality of life. And we don’t want to turn off the spigot for people who really need it.

“Physicians don’t want to see patients in pain, don’t want them to come back because they are in pain. I think unfortunately the pendulum has swung towards . . . being too liberal in the dispensing of very powerful pain medication. So we are focusing in part on providing prescribers with information about it when it’s clinically appropriate. Maybe giving extra strength Tylenol instead of Percocet.”

But people with addictions can be very demanding and manipulative, which is why this state, and now most in the country — the notable exception being Florida, whose “pill mills,” the federal report noted prescribes more opioids than the rest of all other states combined — have adopted prescription monitoring programs.

“We now provide physicians with pretty close to real-time data in terms of the number of prescriptions that someone has, so they can look at your prescription history and not give people multiple pain medications if they’re really doctor shopping,” he said.

“But the data suggest that’s not the biggest source of prescription pain medication. We unfortunately are a society of medication hoarders. It’s not uncommon for us to get a legitimate prescription, and we take some and put the rest in the medicine cabinet because we think we might need it for future use. We know from national data that it often gets diverted. That’s why I often call this an epidemic of the medicine cabinet.”

The second part of the answer is to persuade people to get rid of old medications, and help them do it properly.

Island police are planning, in association with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, to have a hand-in day, later this month, where people can take their unused pain medications to their local police stations. The plan is still evolving, said patrolman Sean Slavin, of Chilmark, the officer coordinating it. The event will be on April 30, probably between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The exact times may change.

“All the stations will have someone there to accept them, then the DEA will take them off-Island for proper disposal,” Mr. Slavin said.

“There are a lot of pain meds out there, in people’s medicine cabinets,” he said. “A lot of times they’ve even been forgotten and they can disappear and people don’t even notice they’re gone.”

There still remains the matter of treating people with dependencies.

“We’ve been fortunate here in Massachusetts that over the past several years we’ve got significant increases in funding that has allowed us to increase treatment capacity,” said Mr. Botticelli.

Late last year, the Island counseling center began a new, intensive program for people with addictions, which has been, perhaps unfortunately, more in demand than originally anticipated. It deals not only with prescription painkillers but other kinds of addictions as well.

“We’ve had about 60 people through since last September,” said Nancy Langman, program director at the counseling center. “It’s called the New Paths program. It’s an intensive outpatient program. Folks can come up to five days a week. We get families involved as needed and work with the resources in each of those person’s lives — employers, whoever.

“The folks that are coming in really need support,” she said.

Some people have been back more than once.

And so, on many fronts, hospital, doctors, counselors, police, state authorities, the problem of prescription drug abuse is being tackled.

But as Mr. Bennett and Ms. Langman warn, in the short term, problems like those of the past couple of months are bound to persist, if not increase.

The best advice from all of them, to us, the general populace, is to keep very secure the medications we need, and hand in those we don’t.