In a speech given on October 26, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a “nationwide public health emergency.” This is not just a description, as it may seem, but a legal act which allows the allocation of a certain number of funds towards combatting the crisis, through the Public Health Services Act (CNN). However, that number is pitifully low; only $57,000, according to the Washington Post. President Trump could have declared the crisis a national disaster, another type of national health emergency declaration which holds more weight and makes more funding available (CNN). Because of this, and other comments, Trump’s reaction to the opioid crisis has been highly controversial.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids are a class of drugs including legal drugs such as common prescription painkillers such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), codeine (cough syrup), morphine, etc., and illegal street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. Opioids are especially popular among young people, and were the cited cause of death of an estimated 62,497 Americans in 2016, according to Vox. As shown in the graph taken from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of opioid-related deaths has been rising steadily since 2000.
The opioid crisis began in the late 1990’s, according to NIDA, when pharmaceutical companies began promoting opioids as non-addictive painkillers (which was false), and doctors began prescribing them more liberally. Also, as reported by Medpage Today, during this time, popular medical philosophy changed in ways that may have exacerbated the crisis. Treating pain came to be seen as almost as important as treating illnesses themselves. Medical organizations such as the United States Department of Veteran Affairs and the Joint Commission officially recognized pain as the “fifth vital sign,” on par with body temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and respiratory rate.
Despite this, some have pointed out that prescription opioids may not be the leading cause of the crisis. According to the New York Post, most opioid-abusers (more than 75% of pill users, most heroin addicts) were never prescribed pain medication for an injury or illness, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, and emergency room records show only 13% of opioid-overdose victims began using opioids because of pain according to the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
Also controversial, has been President Trump’s promise of an aggressive anti-drug (specifically anti-opioid) campaign targeted at youth as a primary strategy against the crisis. The New York Times article “Just Say No to Opioids? Ads Could Actually Make Things Worse” explains how campaigns like these in the past were actually ineffective or even detrimental. The authors cite a study of 200,000 youth aged 9 to 18 that shows that those exposed to more anti-drug campaigns were actually more skeptical about the harmfulness of marijuana and that they should avoid it. The New York Times explains that more subtle add campaigns such as “truth.” which made drugs seem “uncool” were actually more effective than those that made them seem scary. However, the New York Post article “Deadly myths of the opioid epidemic,” provides other statistics that say otherwise. Graphic, aggressive anti-smoking ads from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “cut smoking among youth and convinced 400,000 smokers to quit for good.”
Whether or not you think prescription drugs are the primary cause of the opioid crisis, or whether anti-drug ad campaigns should be graphic or social (or should not exist at all), it is apparent that it will require more than $57,000 in allocated funding to defeat the opioid crisis. Now is the moment for all branches of the government to show with their actions, not just rhetoric, how serious they believe the opioid crisis to be.