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Trump declares the opioid epidemic a public health emergency

  • President Donald Trump on Thursday declared the nation's opioid epidemic a public health emergency.
  • Calling the crisis a "national shame and a human tragedy," Trump said ending the epidemic "will require the resolve of our entire country."
  • The designation of a public health emergency would mobilize resources across the federal government to assist individuals and communities fighting addiction and its effects.

President Donald Trump on Thursday declared the nation's opioid epidemic a public health emergency, the first time since 2010 that the federal government has designated such an emergency nationwide.

But the president stopped short of officially labeling the crisis -- which claimed the lives of 64,000 Americans in 2016 -- a state of national emergency.

"I'm officially declaring the opioid crisis a national public health emergency under federal law," Trump said at a White House event. Ending the epidemic "will require the resolve of our entire country," he said.

Calling the crisis a "national shame and a human tragedy," Trump vowed to crack down on heroin imports from Mexico and fentanyl imports from China. He also pledged to use evidence-based addiction treatment, and to reduce drug use among young people through a national advertising campaign.

The president also discussed his personal experience with addiction: Trump's brother, Fred Trump, died of complications from alcoholism. "Fred was a great guy, and he would tell me, 'don't drink, don't drink.' He would constantly tell me this, over and over." Trump credits his brother's example with convincing him to never drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes.

Trump singled out China, which exports an incredibly strong opioid, fentanyl, which officials believe is responsible for thousands of deaths. Trump also said he would raise the issue of fentanyl exports with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to the country early next week.

He also pledged to go after companies that produce and distribute certain opioids wholesale to "pill mill" medical practices. "We will be bringing some very major lawsuits against people and against companies that have been hurting our communities," he said.

In a move reminiscent of the war on drugs in the 1980s, Trump also said clever advertising could play a major role in discouraging young people from using drugs. "Our most important thing is going to be really, really great advertising, so people don't start and don't have to go through these problems," he said.

The designation of a public health emergency would expand the ways that individuals can get treatment for opioid addiction, which could particularly benefit people in rural areas.

The emergency declaration would also free up public health emergency funds at the Department of Health and Human Services, and grant individual states more flexibility in how they use federal dollars, and allow them to direct more funds toward addiction treatment and prevention.

Labor Department grants known as National Dislocated Worker Grants would also be available to workers who cite opiate addiction as the reason they're applying for the grants. Those grants are typically only available to victims of natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires.

WATCH: Trump threatens lawsuits against people and companies in opioid crisis