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Fentanyl overdoses are increasing, with the CDC estimating the drug killed 70,000 in 2021. Provisional numbers suggest 77,000 overdosed in 2022.
China has not been the primary source of finished fentanyl into the US since 2018. Fentanyl products primarily come into the US from Mexican cartels.
However, China remains the main supplier of chemicals sold to Mexican cartels to produce fentanyl.
As fentanyl deaths have skyrocketed over the past few years, U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher is pointing to China for supplying the deadly drug to the United States.
Gallagher, R-Wis., is chairman of the House Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, which has given him a national platform on China-related issues.
In a recent appearance on "The Pat McAfee Show," he said:
"Beating the Chinese as they attempt to do a variety of things — undermine our sovereignty, send fentanyl into America killing 80,000 Americans a year, threaten war in the Pacific by threatening to take Taiwan — that to me is the biggest national security issue."
Here, we’ll fact-check China’s role in getting fentanyl into the U.S. and how many people the drug is killing.
The claim is numerically accurate on fentanyl overdoses but misrepresents China’s role in illicit fentanyl trafficking into the U.S.
Let’s take a look.
When asked for backup, Jordan Dunn, Gallagher’s communications director, pointed us to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s final and provisional data on drug overdoses, saying Gallagher’s 80,000 figure gave a general estimate of the overdose numbers.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that the CDC describes as "50 to 100 times more potent than morphine." Illegally manufactured versions of the drug have skyrocketed the U.S.’s opioid overdose crisis in the last decade, according to the CDC’s information webpage on fentanyl.
Gallagher’s estimate is close to fentanyl overdose numbers.
According to the CDC, provisional numbers for overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, hit 77,415 between April 2022 and April 2023.
In the latest year for finalized CDC data, 70,601 people died in 2021 from overdoses involving synthetic opioids. Fentanyl compromises about 90% of the deaths in that category.
Regarding the other part of Gallagher’s claim, that China "sends fentanyl into America," experts say this is a misleading interpretation of the trafficking of fentanyl into the U.S.
Chinese drug producers are primarily creating the chemicals to make fentanyl and sending it to Mexican cartels, not directly to the U.S., said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institute think tank.
Early in the U.S. opioid epidemic, China was the primary source of illicit fentanyl but when the Chinese government banned the production of fentanyl in 2019, Felbab-Brown said producers switched to selling chemicals used in the production of fentanyl.
This created a more roundabout way of getting fentanyl into the U.S.
Other reports have reached similar conclusions:
According to a 2022 report from the Congressional Research Service, Chinese traffickers no longer send fentanyl directly to the U.S., instead, chemists send the materials to Mexican criminal organizations who then produce the fentanyl.
And according to the 2023 US International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, Mexico is now "the source of the vast majority" of illicit fentanyl seized in the U.S.
Gallagher said China sends "fentanyl into America killing 80,000 Americans a year."
Fentanyl deaths in the U.S. have spiked in recent years, with over 70,601 overdoses from synthetic opioids like fentanyl occurring in 2021 and an estimated 77,415 occurring in 2022, roughly matching Gallagher’s estimate.
But as far as China’s role in supplying fentanyl to the U.S., Gallagher misses the mark. While China used to be the primary source of illicit fentanyl directly to the U.S., finished products primarily come from Mexico which produces the drug using chemicals from China.
We rate this statement Half True.
Mike Gallagher, "The Pat McAfee Show," June 27, 2023
Email exchange with Gallagher’s Communication Director Jordan Dunn, Sept. 19, 2023
Interview with Vanda Felbab-Brown, foreign policy senior fellow, Brookings Institution, Sept. 19 2023
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Fentanyl," accessed Sept. 19, 2023
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "The Drug Overdose Epidemic: Behind the Numbers," accessed Sept. 19, 2023
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts," accessed Sept. 20, 2023
PolitiFact, "Fact-checking how much fentanyl is coming into the U.S.," Oct. 3, 2022
Congressional Research Service, "China Primer: Illicit Fentanyl and China’s Role," Dec. 8, 2022
Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, "International Narcotics Control Strategy Report," March 2023
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