On Thursday afternoon, President Donald Trump made the announcement that the opioid crisis was a public health emergency plaguing America, killing about 59,000 people in 2016 alone—a death toll that will likely continue to rise thanks to the development of stronger, deadlier synthetics like fentanyl, making it the leading cause of death in America among those over the age of 50, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We owe it to our children and to our country to do everything in our power to address this national shame and this human tragedy,” Trump said in one of many references connecting drugs to kids during his speech. “We must stop the flow of all types of illegal drugs into our communities.”
There are several problems with this. First and foremost: Opioid addiction is a problem that has been simmering for the past couple decades. The president’s declaration makes it a public health emergency for just 90 days. Three months to reverse the problems of the opioid crisis and save the lives of tens of thousands of Americans who have grown accustomed to the drug’s effects on their bodies doesn’t even begin to solve the problem.
In fact, it’s way too little, way too late. Trump had planned to make the announcement in August, but got waylaid into making the announcement on Thursday instead, on the tail end of a spectacularly embarrassing week that showcased the president’s own party calling mutiny against him while he attempted to unite the legislative body around a messy tax plan he hopes to funnel into a win.
The announcement does little beyond lip service, slapping on a label to a crisis that kills more than 200 people per day, according to the CDC (the president cited 175 in his speech). The announcement used florid language to shroud the fact that resources will be allocated toward addressing the problem with telemedicine (allowing rural opioid addicts to call into a hotline of sorts and get help via counseling or be directed to local treatment centers), providing literally no money to address what is now an unprecedented emergency.
And that’s where the biggest flaw, from a scientific standpoint, is in the announcement. Trump’s proposed solution is to declare a “war on drugs” to solve the opioid crisis.
“One of the things our administration will be doing is a massive advertising campaign to get people, especially children, not to want to take drugs in the first place, because they will see the devastation and the ruination it causes to people and people’s lives,” he said, citing the support of Dr. Francis Collins at the NIH.
Problem is: That’s a gigantic waste of time and money. Trump’s attempt to fight the opioid crisis with a Reaganesque “war on drugs” campaign aimed at children is literally the exact opposite approach to what is needed in the war on opioids. Study after study (PDF) has shown that PR campaigns—like the one Reagan made one of his presidency’s trademarks, and that Trump seems to be proposing—do next to nothing in solving a drug problem, and in fact, make drugs even more desirable.
It’s a classic psychological pull: Tell a person something is forbidden, and it makes that forbidden activity that much more attractive. Here’s a line from a 2008 study on the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign that clearly illustrated how much the “war on drugs” failed in being aimed toward children (with emphasis added): “Through June 2004, the campaign is unlikely to have had favorable effects on youths and may have had delayed unfavorable effects.”
These kinds of campaigns have far-reaching effects outside of being scientifically rotten: They kill people. In fact, the Trump administration only has to look south toward Mexico to see the result of not differentiating between drugs and a so-called war on drugs. Drug trafficking has resulted in a perilous state that has driven corruption through the roof, bodies piled up every day, and a situation where the drug trade has grown even stronger than ever.
But most ridiculous about Trump’s announcement is the fact that he is aiming this public health campaign toward kids in the first place. The opioid crisis is a long-brewing problem that finds its roots from drug companies pushing doctors to prescribe OxyContin (and other similar opioids)—initially reserved for those suffering from terminal cancer due to its addictive properties—to those suffering from everyday chronic pain or bouncing back from surgery. The demographic of that group? Primarily white, middle-class Americans, a majority of them over the age of 65.
What a real public health emergency response to the opioid epidemic would look like is this: tens of billions of dollars—not $1 billion over two years (PDF)—dedicated to on-the-ground response groups in the hardest hit areas of rural America, armed with methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, among other alternative opioids, to help opioid addicts from withdrawal that can literally kill them; a head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy that is unconnected to pharmaceuticals like previous nominee, Rep. Tom Marino; and a real plan that lasts more than 90 days.
So while Trump’s thought process of turning every single political issue into an elaborate ad campaign might have made sense during campaign season, it’s lethal, killing thousands of people a year and creating a crisis that is about to get worse before it gets better.
“We are going to overcome addiction in America,” Trump said. “We have fought and won many battles and many wars before. And we will win again.”
The sad truth is that at this rate, we won’t win this war.