The opioid epidemic should command focused attention even from our policy-averse president. It’s America’s worst drug crisis, especially severe in the working-class and rural communities that supported President Donald Trump. Its solution involves spending money, which supposedly doesn’t faze Trump, and tougher actions against drug companies, which he’s vowed to take.
More than 175 Americans die daily from opioid overdoses, according to a presidential commission, far more than the U.S. Centers for Disease Control attributes to car accidents and gun mishaps.
Yet Trump has done nothing but talk since his Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, led by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, issued a report on Nov. 1 filled with dire language and calls to action.
“The time to wait is over,” it declared. “The time for talk has passed.”
Here’s the record so far:
- The White House has yet to ask for any new funding for prevention or law-enforcement programs to address the epidemic. To the contrary, Trump has been receptive to proposals by congressional Republicans to slice spending on Medicare and Medicaid, two of the biggest programs for addiction treatment.
- Trump tapped Rep. Tom Marino, R-Penn., to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The nomination was withdrawn after The Washington Post and CBS News revealed that Marino pushed drug-industry-friendly legislation undermining law-enforcement efforts to crack down on suspicious imports of prescription painkillers.
- Kellyanne Conway has been named opioid czar to coordinate federal addiction-fighting activities. She is Trump’s political spin person, infamous for rebranding misinformation as “alternative facts.”
The Conway appointment stands in contrast to President Barack Obama’s designation of Ron Klain three years ago to coordinate the global effort to contain an Ebola epidemic.
My dumbest column, in 2014, questioned the Klain appointment. I was covering a Senate race in North Carolina where the Republican candidate, Tom Tillis, was joined by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in blasting Klain as a partisan political operative. I suggested that Obama should give the assignment to Gen. David Petraeus instead of Klain; six months later, Petraeus pleaded guilty to mishandling classified information after he misled federal agents investigating his release of confidential materials to his biographer and mistress.
Klain, who has been chief of staff to Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore and a top Justice Department official, did a masterful job cutting through bureaucratic red tape and marshaling support for a multibillion-dollar plan to successfully combat the spread of Ebola in Africa and beyond. Conway, by contrast, is a pollster and political operative with little experience or knowledge about the levers of government.
Congressional Democrats have proposed adding $45 billion over 10 years to fight opioid addiction. Neither the White House nor the Republican congressional leadership has given a substantive response.
Trump voters have the most to lose. The state with the highest incidence of opioid-overdose deaths is West Virginia, which Trump carried by 43 points in last year’s election. Overdose deaths are rising fastest in rural counties, where Trump clobbered Hillary Clinton by the historically huge margin of 26 percentage points.
In parading as a populist in the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly attacked the drug industry, which promoted opioid use even after the human costs emerged. His promises to crack down on big pharma disappeared after the election.
Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.