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What advocates on the front lines of the opioid crisis want to see from Trump’s public health emergency

In declaring a public health emergency over the opioid epidemic, President Trump called for the creation of a national media campaign to reduce drug use among young people. As part of our “America Addicted” series, William Brangham speaks with Gary Mendell of Shatterproof and Jonathan Goyer of the Anchor Recovery about what should be done to prevent addiction.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next: our ongoing series on the opioid crisis, America Addicted.

    Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in this country, up 11 percent last year to more than 50, 000. They kill more Americans than either car crashes or guns.

    Late last week, President Trump declared the epidemic a public health emergency.

    William Brangham has our look at how people on the front lines of that battle are responding.

  • William Brangham:

    In his declaration of a public health emergency over the opioid crisis, President Trump said the country needs to do a lot of things, from ramping up treatments to cracking down on the illegal drugs.

    He also said we have to do more on prevention. He called for the creation of a national advertising campaign to help young people make better decisions.

  • President Donald Trump:

    This was an idea that I had where, if we can teach young people not to take drugs, just not to take them — when I see friends of mine that are having difficulty with not having that drink at dinner, where it's literally almost impossible for them to stop, I say to myself, I can't even understand it. Why would that be difficult?

    But we understand why it is difficult. The fact is, if we can teach young people and people generally not to start, it's really, really easy not to take them. And I think that's going to end up being our most important thing.

  • William Brangham:

    Joining me now are two men who have thought a great deal about helping others avoid addiction.

    Gary Mendell is the CEO of shatterproof, a non-profit group he founded to help families cope with the addiction of a loved one. He lost his own son Brian in 2011. An Jonathan Goyer is a recovering addict himself. He works for Anchor Recovery in Rhode Island, a group that helps try to help those who are struggling with addiction. Many of you will recognize Jonathan from our story about his group's work several weeks ago.

    Gentlemen, welcome to you both to the "NewsHour."

    Gary Mendell, I wonder if we could just start with you.

    What do you make of the president's call for this national campaign on prevention?

  • Gary Mendell:

    To be honest with you, I really didn't understand it.

    His remarks were all based on the opioid epidemic, and the opioid epidemic is not about children trying drugs. There's clear consensus in this country that what has caused this epidemic is a vast overprescribing of prescription painkillers.

    In the last 15 years, the amount of pills being prescribed on an annual basis has gone up four times. And the amount of people dying of an overdose of opioids has gone up six times. It's really not related to teaching children not to use drugs.

  • William Brangham:

    Jonathan, what do you make of this? Do you think that there is some benefit of the president saying, hey, we need to try to get the word out, whatever that word might be? He didn't offer specifics of what the campaign might look like, but what's your take on that?

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    He did not.

    And I think there are points that we can benefit from. I think if he wants to allocate dollars towards a large-scale media campaign, I think that's a good thing. I think we just need to help steer that into a healthier direction.

  • William Brangham:

    And what are the kinds of things that we ought to be saying publicly over and over again?

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    Well, that's part of the problem, is that we don't really have a universal, global health messaging campaign going right now.

    And that is what we need. We need to formulate effective global health messaging towards this issue.

    The other issue with his media campaign is that it's really only targeted towards youth, which is a great audience to start with, but we have to remember that there are millions and millions of people already actively addicted to drugs and alcohol, and we need to make sure that we're targeting a media campaign towards those individual as well.

  • William Brangham:

    Gary, your argument that the crisis has really been driven by the overprescription of prescription painkillers, do you think that we have gotten the message out to doctors that these are addictive drugs, and we have to be careful in how we dole them out to our patients?

  • Gary Mendell:

    Well, the facts are that we haven't gotten that message out yet.

    Up until a year-and-a-half ago, there is absolutely no way we could have blamed doctors, because they were being taught to prescribe these pills, that they were not dangerous.

    Well, that changed a year-and-a-half ago. On March 15, 2016, the CDC issued a set of 12 recommendations called the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, 12 recommendations. And now it's on our health care system and our providers, our doctors to go to the CDC Web site, use the training materials that are there, and adopt these safer prescribing guidelines, which, as of yet, as an industry, has not been done.

  • William Brangham:

    Jonathan, I wonder what you make of the idea of prevention.

    You — as I know from you telling me that you started using at a fairly young age. Is there anything that you could imagine in your own life that you would suggest that we do, as policy-makers, as teachers, as parents, as people in society, that could help kids choose a different path?

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    Well, I think it's important first to back up and identify that we are not in an opioid overdose crisis, but, rather, what we are experiencing is an addiction epidemic of colossal proportion in this country.

    And until we put it in that framework, we're really just putting out small fires here. So, it's really important that we give people the tools and utilize a media campaign to steer people into the direction of treatment and recovery.

  • William Brangham:

    Gary, what about your take on that?

  • Gary Mendell:

    First of all, I would agree with what was just said, but I would like to add to it.

    In addition to a public education campaign, which, to date — there was one years ago, and it didn't work.


  • William Brangham:

    You're talking about the Reagan just say no to drugs…

  • Gary Mendell:

    Yes, yes, and all — and the hundreds of millions of dollars that were spent per year subsequent to that, or just after that time period, were proven not to work. That doesn't mean they couldn't work in the future.

    But I also want to add, there are — our National Institutes of Health have given out grants to researchers all across the country, and those researchers have developed programs that have proven to reduce the number of our teens who use drugs and ultimately become addicted.

    For example, there is a program called Life Skills that's in about 3 or 4 percent of our middle schools. It has great research behind it that shows that it works.

    Alternatively, there's research that shows that DARE, which is in about 75 percent of our middle schools, doesn't work.

    So, if we can move our middle schools from using Life Skills, instead of DARE, the opportunity to reduce the number of our teens who ever use drugs is substantially higher.

  • William Brangham:

    Jonathan, I wonder what you make of the issue of stigma, and how much the stigma over addiction, of people wanting to think that that's not happening to my family, that's not in my school, that's not in my neighborhood, how much that gets in the way of us doing good prevention work?

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    Well, I think it's true. I think a lot of people feel stigma and experience stigma and perpetuate stigma around addiction.

    And we have to remember that, for every addicted individual, there comes an entire family, an entire household, an entire community that's impacted by that as well.

    So, my take on it is, rather than continuing to highlight the problem, which we have done, we need to begin focusing and highlighting on the solutions.

    And a great way to do that is to take stories of hope, stories of recovery, success stories, and highlight those stories, highlight the families getting reconnected, highlight the individuals getting back on their feet and going to work and becoming productive, responsible members of society, because that's what we do.

    And, as we all know, there are 24 million people in the country who have overcome addiction and gone on to live long, successful lives. So, I would personally be interested in hearing those stories and highlighting those stories.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Jonathan Goyer, Gary Mendell, thank you both very much.

  • Gary Mendell:

    You're welcome.

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    Thank you.

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