Drug overdoses kill more Americans annually than motor vehicle accidents.
President Obama cited the jarring statistic Wednesday as he announced new efforts to highlight the toll the United States faces from prescription drug abuse and heroin use.
“In 2013 alone, overdoses from prescription pain medications killed more than 16,000 Americans. One Year. I don’t have to tell you, this is a terrible toll,” Obama said.
The president traveled to Charleston, West Virginia, on Wednesday to join families and health care providers in a community discussion about addressing the epidemic of excessive drug use. The state has the highest rate of overdose deaths in the U.S.
The White House announced new government and private sector efforts Wednesday to reduce the excessive prescription of pain medications and other legal drugs, which often can lead to abuse. The government also is trying to control the number of fatal overdoses of heroin, while improving access to treatment for users.
President Obama issued a memorandum to federal agencies and departments to ensure that health professionals receive adequate training when it comes to prescribing pain medication.
He is calling for more than 540,000 health care providers to complete opioid prescriber training in the next two years.
The U.S. leader said that while addiction is not new, the sale of prescription pain medications has increased by 300 percent since 1999.
“In 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written for these drugs, which is more than enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills,” Obama told an audience of 250 at the East End Family Resource Center in Charleston.
Opioids include hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine and methadone. Heroin belongs to the same class of drugs, and Obama said four in five new heroin users started out by misusing prescription drugs.
“Prescription drugs become a gateway to heroin. As a consequence, between 2002 and 2013, the number of heroin-related deaths in America nearly quadrupled.”
President Obama emphasized the importance of improving Americans’ access to Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT). His administration wants to double the number of physicians certified to prescribe buprenorphine for opioid use disorder treatment from 30,000 to 60,000 over the next three years, and double the number of providers that prescribe naloxone — a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose.
The White House strategy also will continue to target the supply of opioids, with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency working with countries such as Mexico to disrupt drug traffickers and stop the flow of heroin into the United States.
During the hour-long panel discussion Wednesday that included top state and federal officials, Obama heard directly from West Virginia families who have seen the effects of drug abuse first hand. He called for an end to the stigma surrounding drug use, saying words like "junkie" should be replaced by father, sister or friend.
The president drew applause when he called for greater investment in substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.
“Rather than spending billions of dollars, taxpayer dollars, on long prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders, we could save money and get better outcomes by getting treatment to those who need it,” he said.