Families Against Fentanyl, an organization raising awareness about the dangers of the deadly synthetic opioid, are asking the Biden administration to count fentanyl poisoning and overdose deaths the same way it counted COVID-19 deaths.
The organization, which is in regular communication with hundreds of individuals impacted by the opioid crisis, sent a letter to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky on May 10, which the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) designated as National Fentanyl Awareness Day for the first time this year.
The letter calls on Becerra and Walensky to "publish usable provisional fentanyl fatality data within six weeks of death," noting that a current six-month lag prevents experts "from anticipating coming trends, and from responding appropriately to the existing situation."
Families Against Fentanyl is asking the Biden administration to track fentanyl poisoning and overdose deaths — including suspected overdose deaths — in the same way it tracked COVID-19 deaths.
The group is also encouraging the administration to publish data on the number of times naloxone, a life-saving medication that reverses the effects of fentanyl poisoning, saves a life, as well as data on non-fatal fentanyl poisonings.
"The danger of it is unbelievable. The cost of manufacture is super cheap. And we're trying to stop the fentanyl poisoning of Americans," Jim Rauh, founder of Families Against Fentanyl, told Fox News Digital in an interview. "We're trying to have influence over the CDC to be able to derive the data in real-time to see exactly what's happening. This has become the number one killer of 18 to 45-year-olds, and that demographic is widening. We should be able to see what that is."
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be deadly even in very small amounts, and other drugs — including heroin, meth and marijuana — can be laced with the dangerous drug. Mexico and China are the primary sources for the flow of fentanyl into the United States, according to the DEA.
Drug traffickers are increasingly mixing fentanyl with other illicit drugs to drive addiction and create repeat customers, according to experts.
"We've been seeing counterfeit pills. [Fentanyl traffickers] buy pill presses, so it looks exactly like a Zanzibar or Xanax," said Dr. Roneet Lev, an emergency room physician and former chief medical officer of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "And people think that's what they're buying, but they're buying it not from a pharmacy. And there's no Xanax in there. There's fentanyl, and they've seen it even in marijuana products, vaping products. So really, anywhere people get drugs outside a pharmacy, they are at risk for fentanyl."
Families Against Fentanyl first reported CDC data showing that fatal fentanyl poisonings surged to the leading cause of death for adults between the ages of 18 and 45 between 2020 and 2021. Nearly 79,000 people between 18 and 45 years old — 37,208 in 2020 and 41,587 in 2021 — died of fentanyl overdoses in that time frame.
U.S. overdose deaths have doubled in 30 states over the past two years. The U.S. recorded more than 100,000 overdose deaths between May 2020 to April 2021. Over 64% of those overdose deaths are due to synthetic opioids like fentanyl and its analogs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Between November 2020 and November 2021, more than 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in the U.S. Around 66% of those deaths involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl, though many people who do overdose were not aware they were taking fentanyl.
Victims, many of whom are minors or young adults, have died from ingesting fentanyl in illicit pills marketed as Xanax and other non-lethal drugs but which contain the dangerous opioid unbeknownst to buyers. Among teenagers, U.S. fentanyl deaths tripled over two years. Deaths among Black teenagers in the U.S. increased five-fold. Reports suggest some victims may be purchasing illicit drugs and pills containing the opioid on social media apps like Snapchat.
"Now we're seeing kids, middle-school-age, dying like crazy, and they're in no way doing anything other than experiment," said Rauh, who lost his own son to fentanyl poisoning in 2015. "These aren't drug users. These are just innocent people who are being allured to the temptation of risk for … excitement, like any young person does. And so we're pushing the government to give us real-time data so they can't ignore what's happening to us."
He noted that the crisis is costing taxpayers "trillions of dollars."
Rauh's son, Thomas, was instantly poisoned from fentanyl manufactured in China. The U.S. government indicted the organization that manufactured the fentanyl responsible for Thomas's poisoning, but it now operates in Mexico "with the Chinese government's knowledge and assistance," according to Rauh.
Only two milligrams of fentanyl is considered a "potentially lethal dose," and is particularly dangerous for someone who does not have a tolerance to opioid according to the DEA.
The number of pills seized by law enforcement increased almost 50-fold from the first quarter of 2018 to the last quarter of 2021, with pills representing over a quarter of illicit fentanyl seizures by the end of 2021. Seizures of fentanyl powder also increased from 657 pounds to about 5,326 pounds, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Emergency room doctors are seeing the impact of record fentanyl poisoning deaths and overdoses first-hand.
"I'm an emergency physician, and I'm going into work today, and I'll … treat somebody who has an opioid use disorder and treat their addiction or treat their overdose and be lucky to do so because our medical examiners here in San Diego see two-and-a-half deaths a day from fentanyl," Dr. Lev said. "So I'm very jealous of the consorted effort that we've had on COVID, an infectious disease. And I would very much want to see the same type of methodology, approach, focus data on the issue of overdoses."
Lev added that she has not seen a single fentanyl overdose patient who did not "start with marijuana," which is why she is calling for better education about the harmful effects of drugs and other prevention efforts in schools and communities.
Rauh, Lev and some members of Congress are also calling on the administration to label fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) in order to strengthen punishments for entities and individuals who distribute the drug.
"I think they should declare this a weapon of mass destruction immediately," Rauh said, "and have our military intelligence go after them. We can break the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act and go after the perpetrators in other countries. We can seize money. We can stop ships at sea. We can have a real effect on the supply."
He also added that schools should be educating children about the dangers of the drug and carrying Narcan, or noloxone, in the event of an emergency. In January, a 13-year-old Connecticut boy died after being exposed to fentanyl at a middle school.
About 30,000 people have signed a petition from Families Against Fentanyl calling on the U.S. government to designate the drug as a WMD.
Fox News' Bradford Betz contributed to this report.