WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis in the United States a national public health emergency on Thursday (Oct 26) and vowed to step up the fight against an epidemic that kills more than 150 Americans every day.
"We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic," Trump said at a sombre event at the White House attended by former addicts, parents of overdose victims and treatment specialists.
"It will take many years, and even decades, to address this scourge in our society," he said, but "working together, we will defeat this opioid epidemic.
"We will free our nation from the terrible affliction of drug abuse," he said.
Trump said the Food and Drug Administration had already requested that one "especially high risk opioid" which he did not name be withdrawn form the market immediately.
He also threatened "some very major lawsuits against people and against companies that have been hurting our people."
Trump did not mention any specific companies but said action against them would start "pretty soon."
Trump said he would raise the issue of Chinese-produced fentanyl, a synthetic opioid blamed for many of the more than 60,000 overdose deaths a year in the United States, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping when he visits Beijing later this year.
"I'll mention this as a top priority," Trump said, "and he'll do something about it."
Since becoming president in January, Trump has repeatedly pledged to declare a "national emergency" to fight the abuse of opioids such as Percocet, OxyContin, heroin and fentanyl.
Instead of declaring the opioid epidemic to be a "national emergency," however, Trump on Thursday announced he was ordering a "public health emergency."
A national emergency gives states access to federal disaster relief funds but senior administration officials said a public health emergency declaration was more appropriate in battling a longterm crisis such as the opioid epidemic.
The declaration does not provide any increased federal funding to address the crisis but the officials said the White House would seek more money from Congress to do so.
The public health emergency declaration lasts for 90 days and can be renewed repeatedly.
LAST PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY WAS IN 2009
In announcing the move, Trump recounted the story of his late older brother Fred, who he said had a "very tough life because of alcohol."
"He would tell me don't drink," Trump said. "And I listened to him. To this day I've never had a drink."
The emergency declaration will allow the Department of Labor, for example, to provide dislocated worker grants to opioid addicts to help them break what an official called the "cycle of addiction and unemployment."
It will also provide increased access to telemedicine treatment for people in rural areas such as Appalachia and the Rust Belt, which have been particularly hard hit by the opioid crisis.
The last time a public health emergency was declared in the United States was in 2009 in response to the H1N1 influenza outbreak.
A commission set up by Trump to look into drug addiction and abuse is to submit its final report next week and the president said further steps would be taken based on its recommendations.
According to the commission, which is headed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, 142 Americans died every day from a drug overdose in 2015 - more than the number killed in car crashes and gun homicides combined.
Two-thirds of the drug overdose deaths in that year were linked to Percocet, OxyContin, heroin and fentanyl, the commission said.
Prescription painkillers and heroin contributed to some 60,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2016, a 19 percent surge over the previous year, according to an estimate compiled by The New York Times.