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Biden administration says it is making progress slowing the rate of fentanyl deaths

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

There's some good news in the fight to save Americans dying of drug overdoses. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the number of drug deaths has declined for three months in a row. And that's after years of dramatic increases. NPR's addiction correspondent, Brian Mann, joins us now to talk more about this. Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: First of all, just put this in perspective. How significant is this progress?

MANN: Well, this is still pretty incremental. You know, drug deaths peaked at a devastating record around 110,000. They've now declined to around 107,000 deaths per year, according to the CDC. I think what's most significant here is that we're no longer seeing that really deadly upward trend. Xavier Becerra, the head of the Department of Health and Human Services, spoke about this at a press conference yesterday.

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XAVIER BECERRA: We're looking at continuing to make progress because we know there's still a ways to go. We're not going to let stigma drive us anymore. We're going to go where we need to go to help people thrive.

MCCAMMON: And on that note, you know, stigma has always been a big barrier for people trying to get addiction care. What is the Biden administration doing to address that?

MANN: What they began about a year ago, Sarah, is a shift of the national response to the overdose crisis, to health care, treating addiction more and more as an illness, less as a crime. This has been controversial. You know, a lot of Republicans attacked the Biden administration during the midterms for being soft on drugs. But the Biden team argues that these numbers show that their approach is beginning to help.

MCCAMMON: The Biden administration wants to make two medications, naloxone and Narcan, more widely available to help fight this epidemic. How would those medicines help?

MANN: Yeah, these drugs are super effective at reversing opioid overdoses, and the Biden team wants drug companies now to apply for permission to sell these drugs over the counter without the need for a prescription. Experts say that could save a lot more lives. But so far, drugmakers have been reluctant. Senator Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin spoke at that press conference yesterday, really trying to step up the pressure.

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TAMMY BALDWIN: I join with others in calling on the seven drug manufacturers who produce naloxone, Narcan or the equivalents to make their products available over the counter.

MCCAMMON: What is that reluctance on the part of drugmakers about?

MANN: You know, this isn't really clear. The drug industry has raised some concerns about problems with insurance companies, maybe product liability and some confusion among consumers. Some critics say this could also impact their company profits. NPR did reach out to a leading industry group to get their response to this new pressure from the White House. They sent a statement saying it's going to be up to these individual companies to decide whether or not to do this.

MCCAMMON: You know, most of these drug deaths are from illicit fentanyl. That's this incredibly powerful synthetic opioid that's being smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico. Brian, is there any progress in stopping that pipeline?

MANN: Yeah, the short answer, unfortunately, is no. You know, fentanyl is being made using chemicals that come from China that are then formulated by the drug cartels in Mexico. And those countries have mostly stopped cooperating on drug interdiction efforts with the U.S. I spoke about this week with Representative David Trone, a Democrat from Maryland. He's one of the leading experts on addiction in Congress.

DAVID TRONE: Our success right now on slowing or stopping the movement of fentanyl across the border is close to zero. We are failing because we have two partners, China and Mexico, who have chosen not to participate in any meaningful way to help us.

MANN: The Biden administration says it is trying to hurt the cartels with a new effort targeting their money and their financing, but there's no sign yet that's making a dent. So I guess the good news here is that drug deaths appear to be leveling off or even declining a little bit. But the bad news, Sarah, is that no one expects this public health crisis from fentanyl to vanish anytime soon.

MCCAMMON: Brian Mann, NPR's addiction correspondent. Thanks so much for your time, Brian.

MANN: All right. Thanks, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.