Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Tuesday the creation of a new opioid task force to target drug manufacturers and distributors who are fueling the prescription painkiller epidemic.
"We will use criminal penalties, we will use civil penalties," Sessions said as he announced the creation of the Prescription Interdiction and Litigation (PIL) Task Force.
"We will use whatever laws and tools we have to hold people accountable if they break our laws," the attorney general declared. He also said that opioid abuse is "driving the deadliest drug crisis in American history."
Sessions said the task force "will examine existing state and local government lawsuits against opioid manufacturers to determine if we can be of assistance."
The Justice Department said that lawsuit is actually a multi-district action involving hundreds of lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors.
"In fact, we are already getting involved in these cases. I am announcing today that the department will file a statement of interest in a lawsuit against a number of opioid manufacturers and distributors for allegedly using false, deceptive, and unfair marketing of opioid drugs," the attorney general said.
Sessions spoke at a press conference at the Robert F. Kennedy Main Justice Building in Washington, D.C., with state attorneys general present, including Pennsylvania's Josh Shapiro.
"I believe that these opioid painkillers have been the jet fuel to this crisis," Shapiro noted. He said that in an average day, 15 Pennsylvanians die of drug overdoses.
"As we're doing this work, we have to focus on the supply chain," he continued. "The supply chain runs directly to these opioid manufacturers, runs directly to these opioid distributors."
Sessions said the year 2016 had seen the highest number of fatal drug overdoses by far in United States history, an estimated 64,000. 2017, he said, is expected to have recorded even more such deaths.
Most of those deadly overdoses are related to opioids, either prescription painkillers, synthetic drugs such as fentanyl, or heroin, the illegal street drug.
"We will continue to attack the opioid crisis from every angle," the attorney general said. "And we will continue to work tirelessly to bring down the number of opioid prescriptions, reduce the number of fatal overdoses, and to protect the American people."