Is America’s opioid epidemic Australia’s future?

Is America's opioid epidemic Australia's future?

Every four hours an Australian is lost to preventable overdose, according to Australia’s Annual Overdose Report released by Penington Institute.

Overdose has taken the lives of over 35,000 Australians since 2001. It is a leading cause of death for all ages and sexes, second only to suicide for those in their 30s, and third to suicide and land transport accidents for those in their 20s.

“Overdose deaths continue to exceed the road toll,” said John Ryan, CEO of Penington Institute.

“Yet while Australia implements a National Road Safety Strategy, funds public education campaigns and has established an Office for Road Safety, thousands of Aussies continue to die of overdose in virtual silence.

“This health crisis affects Australians of all ages, from all places. There is a misconception that overdose only kills younger people; however, Australians over 40 accounted for more than two-thirds of overdose deaths in 2020.

“Many also believe illicit drugs are the main cause; however, pharmaceuticals continue to drive overdose deaths in Australia. Stimulants such as ice are a growing concern though, with overdose deaths involving this drug type increasing ten-fold in just the last two decades.

“Irrespective of substance, overdose continues to be a significant and growing burden on our nation’s healthcare system, placing unnecessary strain on ambulance services already under pressure. America’s opioid epidemic is Australia’s future, if we don’t act now.”

Penington Institute is once again calling for a National Overdose Prevention Strategy in collaboration with leading experts and people with lived experience. Globally, the institute is driving a broader societal shift to reduce stigma and end overdose through International Overdose Awareness Day, held on 31 August each year.

“It is near impossible to assess the true extent of this crisis as investigations of overdose deaths take several years, with the most recent data from 2020. Reducing this delay would give us visibility of sudden changes in overdose patterns, enabling real-time action to manage overdose and efficiently track the impact of government initiatives,” Ryan said.

“We need government action, but we also need action within the community, the business sector and the media to reduce stigma and drive change. Without open discussion and collaboration, the stigma associated with overdose will continue to obstruct any efforts to shift the dial on this insidious killer.”

Annual Overdose Report 2022 — Key findings

  1. 2220 Australians died of overdose in 2020* — three-quarters (1654) of which were unintentional.

  2. Since 2001, there have been over 35,000 drug-induced deaths in Australia.

  3. It is estimated that this crisis costs Australia approximately $16 billion annually, with each overdose equivalent to 33 years of potential life lost. That’s $650 for every single Australian adult and child.

  4. Opioids were detected in 856 unintentional overdose deaths in 2020, while benzodiazepines (sedatives) were detected in 596 unintentional overdose deaths and stimulants (eg, ice) were found in 526 such deaths.

  5. For Australians in their 30s, overdose was the second most common cause of death in 2020 behind only suicide, while for Australians in their 20s, overdose was the third-leading cause of death behind suicide and land transport accidents.

  6. Australians aged 40+ accounted for more than two-thirds (68.3% or 1129 deaths) of all unintentional overdose deaths in 2020.

  7. Among Aboriginal Australians, the rate of unintentional drug-induced death is far higher than for non-Aboriginal Australians: 18.1 per 100,000 population in 2020, compared with 5.6 for non-Aboriginal people. Residents of rural and regional parts of the country are also over-represented in such deaths, as are men.

  8. Over the five years to 2020, more than half of all unintentional drug-induced deaths involved three or more drug types, with less than one-third involving one drug type only. Almost one in ten involved six or more different drug types.

  9. Opioids continue to be the most common drug present in unintentional deaths, mostly due to heroin and oxycodone/morphine/codeine. The rise in fentanyl/pethidine/tramadol deaths over time is concerning, increasing by 1275% since 2006. In 2020, fentanyl/pethidine/tramadol contributed to almost one in five unintentional deaths involving opioids.

  10. The number of deaths involving stimulants was higher in 2020 than in 2019; as the numbers will continue to rise as the data are finalised, the increase is likely to be substantial. Unintentional drug-induced deaths involving stimulants have increased ten-fold in two decades, from 53 deaths in 2001 to 526 in 2020.

*2020: In Australia, all suspected overdose deaths must be reported to a coroner. These investigations can sometimes take several years, so the most recent statistics available are from 2020.

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