SAN FRANCISCO -- Prescription drug abuse in the Bay Area and nationwide is a growing problem, outpacing illegal drugs and creating a new generation of heroin addicts, law enforcement, public health officials and substance abuse specialists said during a regional summit Wednesday.

The number of accidental overdose deaths from prescription pills has skyrocketed in recent years, more than quadrupling since 1999, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. In 2010, nearly 60 percent of drug overdoses involved legal opiates, pain medication such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone, said U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, whose office organized the summit.

The problem is especially acute among teens and young adults ages 18-25, who tend to view prescription pills as "safe" because they are legal and given out by doctors.

"We know that the overdose deaths and the increased heroin use are being driven by previous prescription drug misuse," said Steve Pasierb, chief executive officer at The Partnership at Drugfree.org, a nonprofit organization that works to educate about the dangers of drug abuse. "Still, there are too many parents out there who don't believe this is a problem and who you could say are not minding their meds."

According to Pasierb, 4 out of 5 heroin users previously used prescription drugs but switched to heroin after not being able to find the medications or not being able to afford them as prices have risen in recent years.

"We are at the front end of a national catastrophe, and the numbers are going to get worse," Pasierb said.

On Wednesday, presenters offered numerous solutions, including requiring all doctors to check a database before writing a prescription, prescribing smaller amount of pills for injuries, and expanding city- and county-run drug disposal programs that allow residents to safely dispose of unwanted medicine.

"Prescription drugs are coming from only one source: doctors," said Erin Loback, a deputy district attorney for Alameda County, who is part of a unit that cracks down on health care.