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House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, answers questions at the Tennessee Press Association convention, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE — State House Speaker Beth Harwell announced Friday she has created a new, seven-member legislative task force on opioid and prescription drug abuse in Tennessee, a state that consistently ranks at the top nationally on prescription drug abuse problems.

Among lawmakers named to the panel is Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, a retired nurse.

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State Rep. JoAnne Favors during a meeting at the Times Free Press offices on May 26, 2015, in Chattanooga.
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Harwell, R-Nashville, said the group's "immediate goal" is to work on legislation but it also will have responsibility for developing best strategies to address what she calls the state's opioid "epidemic."

"This task force presents an opportunity to have a very serious conversation about opioid and prescription drug abuse in our state," Harwell said in a statement. "The statistics are devastating: there are more opioid prescriptions than there are people in Tennessee."

In 2015, according to Harwell, 1,451 Tennesseans died from drug overdoses, a figure she called "the highest annual number in our state's history."

The number of babies born who have been "chronically exposed to opioids is high, particularly in East Tennessee," Harwell said. "The Tennessee Department of Health reports that from 2000 to 2012, the rate of babies born with exposure increased 15 fold.

"We can, and should, do more to ensure this is not happening," the speaker said.

While lawmakers have passed "some legislation in the past targeting the problem," Harwell said, she believes "we also need to look toward solutions that include treatment and prevention measures. I believe this task force can be an asset as we work to address this issue in this session and in the future."

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that prescription opioid abuse has a total economic burden of $78.5 billion per year in the United States. There is an estimated $7.7 billion criminal justice cost across the country.

In addition to Favors, other task force members are:

* Speaker Pro Tempore Curtis Johnson, R-Clarksville – Chair

* Rep. Curtis Halford, R-Dyer

* Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Old Hickory

* Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland

* Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro

* Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville

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