Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
George Marshall Conference Center, U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC
February 23, 2010

Good morning. I want to join Director Kerlikowske (ker-li-KOW-skee) and Assistant Secretary Johnson in welcoming our Mexican colleagues to Washington. Over the last eight months, I’ve gotten to work closely with Secretary Cordova, especially on the H1N1 flu. Mexico has been a great ally. And in this age of health threats that cross borders, whether it’s a new virus or a shipment of drugs, partnership on health issues is going to become more and more important. So I look forward to working with all of you in the months to come.

As you’ve already heard from Gil and Assistant Secretary Johnson, reducing demand for illicit drugs is a top priority for this administration. You can see that in the way the President’s entire cabinet has taken this problem on. We have terrific leadership from Gil and his team. But we’re also attacking this problem with law enforcement agents at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, diplomats at the State Department, and teachers supported by the Department of Education.

This approach reflects the wide range of social problems associated with illicit drug use. It can break apart families, corrupt communities, and lead to violence and homelessness. It fosters large criminal organizations. It hurts productivity and fills our jails and prisons. And illicit drugs also have significant health costs, though they don’t generate big headlines. That’s where our department’s team of doctors, scientists, prevention experts, and treatment managers come in.

Every year, our department conducts a comprehensive survey of substance use in the United States. According to our most recent data, from 2008, more than 20 million Americans are current users of illicit drugs. That’s one out of every twelve adults or young adults. It’s more than the populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia combined.

We also know that there is a strong association between drug abuse and sickness. Beyond direct health consequences like dangerous overdoses, substance abuse puts people at greater risk for risk for more than 70 conditions that often lead to hospitalization, from heart disease to cancer to digestive disorders. Addiction can make these conditions even worse since it often prevents people from seeking out and receiving the treatment they need.

The result is that untreated people who are dependent on alcohol or drugs use twice as much health care and have twice as high health care costs as other people their age. This contributes to our larger health care crisis.

Part of the reason health insurance premiums have doubled in the last ten years is that we’ve underinvested in prevention and wellness. For too long, we’ve had a sick care system that waits until people get sick and then tries to make them better instead of trying to keep them healthy in the first place.

This administration is committed to changing that. We believe we need a true health system. That means we need to do a better job addressing the underlying conditions that drive so much of our health care spending from obesity to smoking. Reducing drug use can also be part of this strategy.

So this is a priority for our department, and we know we have some work to do. The good news is that the share of Americans who are drug users isn’t rising. The bad news is that about eight thousand Americans use illicit drugs for the first time every day, and there are still millions of Americans who don’t get the substance abuse treatment they need.

In a few minutes, you’ll hear from Pam Hyde, our terrific Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administrator about some of the steps we’re taking to reduce demand for illicit drugs, but I can tell you that we’re investing at every intervention point from prevention to treatment to supporting recovery.

We’re working at the community level across the country, taking the most proven strategies and then trying to spread them. And today, I’m pleased to announce that working with the Office of National Drug Control Policy, we’re making available more than $1 million in new grants that will allow some of our Drug Free Community grantees to serve as mentors for other communities that are interested in coming together to reduce drug use.

These are some of the best investments we make. Researchers have studied them and have found that they have a huge payoff in lower health costs, with as much as 20 dollars saved for every one we invest in substance abuse prevention. When you add in the benefits of increased productivity and the savings from putting fewer people in jail, and it’s clear that we have a huge opportunity if we can reduce the use of illicit drugs.

So this issue is not just about cracking down on criminals. It’s also about investing for the future. If we can reduce substance abuse, it will help improve the health of Americans across the country and slow rising costs for families, businesses, and government.

Our ultimate goal is to have a health agenda that extends outside the doctor’s office. We want to promote health across society…in healthy schools, healthy workplaces, healthy homes and healthy communities. Reducing drug use can be an important part of that agenda.

So I want to thank you all for coming here to discuss this important issue. And I look forward to working with you in the future on this important issue.