For Surgeon General Jerome Adams, the fight against opioids is personal

Payne Lubbers
The Detroit News

Detroit — U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told attendees of the 110th annual NAACP Convention on Monday that the opioid epidemic is one of the primary health issues facing the black community, and one that has plagued his family as well.

"For me, some of you know this, but the opioid crisis is very, very personal," Adams said during the convention's Health Luncheon at Cobo Center. "My baby brother, Phillip, is serving 10 years right now for stealing $200 to support his addiction. He suffered from untreated mental illness and turned to drugs to self medicate."

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams waits for his introduction Monday at the 110th NAACP Convention at Cobo Center.

Adams urged members of the black community to end the stigmatization of drugs users because members of all communities have been impacted by the crisis. 

"Addiction can happen to anyone, even the brother of the United States Surgeon General," he said. "There is no more 'us' and 'them.'"

The number of opioid-related deaths in Detroit has climbed from 46 in 2012 to 280 in 2017, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

In 2016, Detroit's overdoses accounted for nearly 40% of the 538 opioid-related deaths in Wayne County. In total, 1,786 Michigan residents died that year from opioid overdoses, state figures show.

Adams said there has been a disproportionately large increase in drug overdose deaths in minority communities in the last year. He added that black youth are now more likely to use opioids than their white counterparts.

"I want you to know that I have a plan for the priorities during my tenure, but in the words of the great American philosopher Mike Tyson, 'Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,'" he said. "And the punch in the mouth we're dealing with right now is the opioid epidemic." 

Drug poisoning is now the leading cause of unintentional death in the United States, according to the National Safety Council. 

According to a report from the Department of Health and Human Services, 47,872 people died from an opioid overdose in 2017, an increase from 42,249 in 2016.

NAACP Chairman Leon Russell told attendees of the Health Luncheon not to worry about what presidential administration Adams is a part of but rather to focus on his message.

"I'm just happy Surgeon General Adams is here to talk about partnership. He's here to talk about collaboration. What can we do together?" he said. 

The surgeon general also stressed the relationship between public health and economic well-being. Adams cited the fact that the new home of Amazon's second headquarters, Crystal City, Virginia, is surrounded by some of the healthiest communities in the country.

"Healthy cities translate into a healthy workforce, and that's where businesses are relocating to," he said. "So, if you want to attract business to your town, you need to lean into healthy communities."