Trump declares opioid crisis a Public Health Emergency

Chase Karacostas

President Donald Trump declared a Public Health Emergency late last week to combat the opioid crisis, but critics say it will do little to abate the epidemic.

The declaration eases access to some addiction treatments, increases the ability of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to hire substance abuse specialists and allows for the shifting of funding within HIV/AIDS programs to help people eligible for those programs receive substance abuse treatment.

“For too long, we have allowed drugs to ravage American homes, cities and towns,” Trump said. “We owe it to our children and our country to do everything in our power to address this national shame and this human tragedy.”

More than 60,000 Americans died in 2016 from drug overdoses, which is higher than deaths from motor vehicle crashes and gun-related homicides combined, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Nationally, this equates to a death rate of 16.33 deaths per 100,000 people. There are 11.6 deaths per 100,000 people in Travis County, slightly higher than Texas’ rate of 9.4 deaths per 100,000, according to the Foundation for AIDS Research.

Trump also announced a new advertising campaign to discourage people, especially children, from using illicit drugs in the first place. He followed this up by saying individuals who purchase illegal drugs are helping support violent drug cartels.

Lucas Hill, clinical assistant professor and director of Operation Naloxone, a collaborative that provides overdose prevention training and resources to the health professionals and the public, said the announcement misses one critical element that could actually combat the crisis: increased funding. Without additional money appropriated for harm reduction programs and substance abuse treatment, Hill said the crisis will only continue to worsen.

The emergency also has a time limit of 90 days. Hill said the crisis will take years, if not decades, to beat. He said 90 days is simply not enough time to make any major regulatory changes that could help — such as legalizing naloxone, the opioid overdose treatment drug, for over-the-counter sales.

“It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a necrotic limb,” Hill said. “It’s a joke … A time-limited, no-funding announcement is going to have realistically zero effect.”

Overall, Hill said the announcement was extremely disheartening. Substance abuse advocates had been pushing for Trump to declare a national emergency, which does not have an expiration date and opens new pathways for funding.

The announcement of the advertising campaign is little more than a red herring that will detract from work toward more effective solutions to the crisis, such as substance abuse treatment, Hill said.

“It continues on a trend of playing on people’s visceral thoughts and emotions about the subject with something that sounds like a logical and simple answer but has been proven repeatedly not to work,” Hill said.

At the current rate of growth, Hill said the epidemic will kill 100,000 Americans in 2020 no matter what is done to fight it.

Several days before Trump’s announcement, 15 Democratic senators introduced legislation to invest $45 billion toward fighting the crisis. Ian Sims, advocacy chair for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said Trump’s failure to endorse the bill shows how little he cares about solving the crisis.

“His declaration was largely symbolic,” said Sims, international relations and global studies sophomore. “It was just empty words, and no concrete steps were taken near to the extent that they should.”