Health and Science

New HHS secretary: Opioid addiction is not a moral failing and should be treated as a medical condition

Key Points
  • Opioid addiction "is not a moral issue," says Alex Azar, who was sworn in as Health and Human Services secretary in late January.
  • These are "individuals who are getting trapped in a cycle of addiction," he argues.
HHS Sec: Opioid crisis 'devastating' and there's 'blame all around'

People who are dependent on opioids shouldn't be stigmatized, and their addiction should be treated as a medical condition, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Wednesday.

"This is not a moral issue," said Azar, who has spent his career working in both the private and public sector of health care as an attorney and other various leadership roles.

"They are not individuals who are seeking out to be drug addicts or are seeking out a high. They are individuals who are getting trapped in a cycle of addiction," Azar told CNBC's "Squawk Box."

Opioids, including heroin and fentanyl, were involved in more than 42,000 overdose deaths in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Additionally, the negative economic effect of the opioid crisis is estimated to be more than $1 trillion from 2001 through last year, health research and consulting institute Altarum said.

The opioid epidemic affects American children as well. The number of pediatric opioid hospitalizations requiring intensive care nearly doubled to 1,504 patients between 2012 and 2015, from 797 patients between 2004 and 2007, according to a study published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Pediatrics.

On Monday, President Donald Trump said he's considering suing drugmakers for their role in fueling the opioid epidemic after a number of cities, counties and states sued opioid manufacturers.

"Companies must also be accountable," Trump said. "The Department of Justice recently created a task force to coordinate investigations and lawsuits against manufacturers and other bad actors that harm our citizens."

On Wednesday, Azar was also asked about Trump's hard stance on Mexico drug traffickers and whether they're even related to the opioid epidemic. Azar claimed people are able to gain access to illegal opioids from our southern borders.

Sworn in a Health and Human Services secretary in late January, Azar called the impacts of opioid addiction "devastating" and reiterated the president's plan to reduce the number of legal opioid prescriptions in the United States.

Azar previously served at Health and Human Services from 2001 to 2007, during George W. Bush's presidency, as general counsel and later as deputy secretary. In the private sector, as president of the U.S. division of drug giant Eli Lilly, Azar had overseen prescription price hikes, a practice he's charged to thwart working for the president.

Trump's first Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Price, resigned back in September over his use of taxpayer-funded private jets. Price, a former congressman, also worked for nearly two decades as an orthopedic surgeon.