What we know about opioids, declared by Trump as a public health emergency

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel (left) and U.S. Attorney Gregory J. Haanstad in February 2016 announced the selection of Milwaukee as a pilot city for a new strategy to fight prescription opioid misuse. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel (left) and U.S. Attorney Gregory J. Haanstad in February 2016 announced the selection of Milwaukee as a pilot city for a new strategy to fight prescription opioid misuse. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., has been the target of attacks over prescription opioids and has criticized President Donald Trump's response to the opioid crisis. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., has been the target of attacks over prescription opioids and has criticized President Donald Trump's response to the opioid crisis. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

An order President Donald Trump issued on Oct. 26, 2017 declaring the opioid crisis a public health emergency is the latest confirmation of how dangerous the cycle of addiction -- from prescription pain pills to illegal heroin to the lethal fentanyl -- has become.

The order waives regulations and gives states more flexibility in how they use federal funds to meet the crisis.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., said Trump’s order "fails to match words with action." She said a bill she supports would invest $45 billion for the prevention, detection, surveillance and treatment of opioids.

Here is some of what we know about opioids, based on four fact checks we’ve done involving Wisconsin politicians.

In America, "more people die from" prescription narcotic painkillers "than from heroin and cocaine combined."

Our rating: Half True.

This March 2017 claim was made by state Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican.

The latest-available CDC figures showed there were 19,782 heroin- or cocaine-related deaths in 2015 -- higher than the total for prescription painkiller deaths, 17,536.

But other federal agencies and credible health-care organizations -- citing CDC numbers -- said there were 22,598 deaths involving one or more prescription opioid painkillers in 2015.

The difference had to do with a change in how the CDC regarded fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller that is sold both as a prescription medicine and as an illegally produced street drug.

Heroin and prescription opioids are "the number one cause of accidental or preventable death in Wisconsin."

Our rating: False.

Schimel made this statement in 2014, while running for attorney general, and acknowledged to us that he misspoke.

The latest figures available at the time, for 2012, showed falls were the leading cause of accidental death in Wisconsin. Tied for second were motor-vehicle deaths and drug overdoses of all types -- including 511 deaths from heroin or prescription opioids.

"More people now die in Wisconsin from drug overdoses than car crashes."

Our rating: True.

Schimel also made this claim, in a June 2016 opinion article. Connecting the overdose death of Prince from fentanyl to Wisconsin’s opiate epidemic, Schimel urged people to lock up prescription painkillers in their homes, as they are often the starting point for people who develop opiate addictions.

The latest data available at the time was for 2014: 843 people in Wisconsin died of drug overdoses -- counting all types of drugs -- while 558 died in car crashes.

(By the way, opiates are narcotics derived directly from the poppy flower, such a opium, heroin and morphine. Opioids are chemical compounds -- natural or synthetic -- that act on opioid receptors, which are distributed widely in the brain, and are found in the spinal cord and digestive tract. In other words, opiates are opioids, but not all opioids are opiates.)

Says Tammy Baldwin was told by a whistleblower about "overmedicated veterans," she made "deadly mistakes" and "three veterans died" at the Tomah VA hospital.

This April 2017 attack on Baldwin, who is up for re-election in 2018, was made by the Americas PAC political action committee.

Our rating: False.

Baldwin had acknowledged mistakes in the handling of an inspection report and a whistle blower’s emails about veterans being over prescribed opioid painkillers at the VA hospital in  Tomah, Wis. But none of those tied Baldwin to the deaths.

One death had nothing to do with overmedication. One was an overdose, but it occurred in Milwaukee years after the veteran stopped being treated in Tomah and before the whistleblower contacted Baldwin. And the third death, though an overdose at the Tomah VA, also occurred before the whistleblower contacted Baldwin (and only one day after she received the inspection report).