- - Thursday, January 25, 2018


China,” Donald Trump said many times during the 2016 presidential election campaign, “is killing us.” He meant it metaphorically. He was speaking of China’s aggressive trade and industrial policies, which he blamed — not unreasonably — for wreaking damage on the American economy.

But had he meant the remark to be taken literally, he might very well have been correct.

Consider the painkiller epidemic, which is visiting death and destruction across the country on an unimaginable and horrific scale. Eighty-five percent of the world’s opioids, a new name for painkillers, are consumed in the United States, which suggest either that the United States suffers a bizarrely disproportionate quota of the world’s pain (possible but unlikely), or that the crazed over-prescription of opioid painkillers has led to mass addiction (plausible).

In the right hands, opioids are nothing less than wonder drugs, and some of them, like morphine, have an old and honorable history. Opioids are sometimes sold under brand names such as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Percodan and Demerol, and are available only with a prescription from a doctor. Drug overdoses, often from these drugs sold illegally on the street, have become the leading cause of death among Americans under 50 years old. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the opioid crisis “has changed moral, social and cultural resistance to street-drug alternatives such as heroin.”

Whatever the root cause, 2016 was the deadliest year on record for overdose deaths in U.S. history (final data for 2017 is not yet available), with more than 60,000 Americans felled by overdoses. The most potent of those deadly opioids is the ingredient fentanyl, which is estimated by the Drug Enforcement Administration to be 35 times more potent than heroin. Sometime, for street sales, it’s mixed with heroin. So dangerous is this stuff that first responders have overdosed simply by coming in contact with it.

More than 40,000 people were killed by fentanyl overdoses in 2016. Indeed, fentanyl was determined to have been in part responsible for the overdose deaths of rock stars Prince in 2016 and Tom Petty last year.

China is by far the largest manufacturer and supplier of fentanyl. “Within China’s vast drug industry, which produces much of the global supply of pharmaceutical ingredients,” the Baltimore Sun reported last year, “laboratories are taking advantage of cheap labor and lax oversight from Beijing to churn out new versions of the cheap, powerful and often deadly synthetic opioid faster than U.S. authorities can identify, classify and ban them.” In many cases, the newly manufactured fentanyl is shipped to drug traffickers in Mexico or the United States, who turn it into powder, ready for sale to desperate addicts.

Now comes a chilling report from the U.S. Senate, released just this week, that sets out how Chinese fentanyl manufacturers are using the U.S. Postal Service to distribute their lethal wares. “Purchasing opioids from China requires little more than a Google search, a credit card and a mailbox,” Senate investigators say, and accuse the U.S. Postal Service of failure to recognize and prepare for a tide of packages containing deadly fentanyl.” This newspaper reported that investigators searched through Google and found six merchants willing to sell fentanyl. They would simply drop it in the mail.

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican who represents one of the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, wants the Postal Service to establish better enforcement of the law. The senator “is pushing a bill that would force foreign postal systems to send advanced electronic data before packages reach the U.S. so agents can better target those that may contain narcotics,” The Times reported. That would help; almost half of the packages shipped out of China report this kind of data.

Getting the shipping in order is all to the good. But the real problem — aside from addiction — is that the source of the scourge is China. President Trump, who declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency last fall, pledged that he’ll pressure the Communist regime to do more than talk about closing fentanyl factories. China is responsible for a flood of cheap and deadly fentanyl, the president rightly says. The U.S. Justice Department has obtained the indictment of two Chinese men for trafficking fentanyl.

The United States, as a very special customer of Chinese goods, can exert leverage over China in several ways, principally economic. If China is unable or unwilling to do anything about an industry that is killing Americans by the tens of thousands, the United States must not hesitate to use that leverage to push China to do the right thing.

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