U.S. deaths from drug overdoses set a record of more than 64,000 in 2016, driven by an intractable opioid crisis, U.S. Attorney General said Thursday, citing preliminary government data.
Provisional data released last month by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) showed that there were 64,070 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2016, up 21 percent from 52,898 the year before.
The NCHS is an arm of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The 2016 estimate "would be the highest drug death toll and the fastest increase in that death toll in American history," Sessions said. "And every day this crisis continues to grow, as more than 5,000 Americans abuse painkillers for the first time."
Opioids such as heroin and the synthetic drug fentanyl were responsible for most of the fatal overdoses, killing more than 33,000 Americans — quadruple the number from 20 years ago.
"More Americans died of drug overdoses than died from car crashes or died from AIDS at the height of the AIDS epidemic," Sessions said. "For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death."
Sessions spoke at an event in Charleston, West Virginia, a state with the highest drug overdose rate in the country. In 2015, West Virginia reported more than 41 overdose deaths per 100,000 people, compared with a national average of 16 per 100,000, according to NCHS data.
Sessions said President Donald Trump's campaign pledge to end the opioid crisis remains a priority for his administration.
"I believe that the department's new resources and new efforts will bring more criminals to justice, and ultimately save lives," Sessions said. "And I'm convinced this is a winnable war."
In March, Trump named New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a former presidential candidate, to head the newly formed President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.
Last month, the commission urged the administration to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency.
"With approximately 142 Americans dying every day, America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks," the commission said in an interim report.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said that no declaration was necessary to combat the crisis, but White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later said Trump was taking the idea "absolutely seriously."