By Jeff Mason
ATLANTA (Reuters) - With a nod to his own drug use as a young man, President Barack Obama on Tuesday called for more funding and a new approach to help people addicted to heroin and prescription drugs, seeking to shine a public spotlight on an increasingly deadly killer.
During an appearance at a drug abuse summit in Atlanta, Obama said opioid overdoses killed more people in the United States than traffic accidents did, and compared the importance of addressing the issue to that of fighting Islamic State militants.
"It's costing lives and it's devastating communities," Obama said while participating in a panel with addicts in recovery and medical professionals. He said efforts to fight the epidemic were grossly underfunded.
Obama, who earlier this year asked the U.S. Congress for $1.1 billion in new funding over two years to expand treatment for the epidemic, has faced criticism for not doing more to fight the problem sooner.
Opioid addiction has become an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Obama wrote about using marijuana and cocaine in his book "Dreams from my Father." He said on Tuesday he was lucky addiction had not overcome him earlier in life beyond his use of cigarettes, and he pressed for the issue to be framed as a medical problem rather than a legal one.
"For too long we have viewed the problem of drug abuse generally in our society through the lens of the criminal justice system,” he said.
In 2014, a record number of Americans died from drug overdoses, with the highest rates seen in West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Ohio.
Obama said he needs Congress to open the purse strings to help expand treatment, particularly in rural areas, and applauded bipartisan legislation designed to combat the problem.
Meanwhile his administration announced $11 million in grants for up to 11 states to help expand medication-assisted treatment, and another $11 million for states to buy and distribute naloxone, an overdose drug.
The Health and Human Services Department is also proposing a new rule for buprenorphine, a medication used to help addicted people reduce or quit their use of heroin or painkillers.
The rule would allow physicians who are qualified to prescribe the medication to double their patient limit to 200. The White House said that measure would expand treatment for tens of thousands of people.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish)