President Donald Trump said Thursday that the federal government will follow the example set by states and cities and begin suing drug companies and distributors for their role in the opioid epidemic.
"I keep saying, 'If the states are doing it, why isn't the federal government doing it?'" Trump said during a surprise appearance at the White House's opioid summit.
"So, that will happen," Trump said. "That will happen."
The president said he has already spoken to Attorney General Jeff Sessions about taking such federal action against the makers of prescription painkillers.
About 62,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016, with most of those cases related to either prescription opioids, heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.
The negative economic effect of the opioid crisis recently was estimated to be more than $1 trillion from 2001 through last year, primarily from a loss in earnings and productivity from victims of fatal ODs.
Trump also said Thursday that the U.S. needs to get tough with drug dealers.
He said other countries which impose the death penalty for illegal drug selling have fewer problems with drug abuse than the U.S.
If the federal government actually does sue opioid manufacturers, it would be going significantly further than an action announced Tuesday.
Sessions that day revealed that the Justice Department would be filing a so-called statement of interest in hundreds of lawsuits that states and municipalities and Native American tribes already have pending against opioid makers.
The lawsuits, which claim that drugmakers, distributors and dispensers misled customers about the risks of addiction from opioids, have been consolidated in an action pending in U.S. District Court in Cleveland. The company defendants in the pending lawsuits have either publicly denied the allegations in statements to the media, or have declined to comment.
But "the statement of interest does not make the government party to the lawsuit," attorney Jesse Gessin told NBC News for a story published Thursday.
Gessin was one of several lawyers quoted by NBC who were skeptical that the Trump administration will get aggressive with drug companies over the issue.