Australia’s continuing overdose tragedy

Australia’s continuing overdose tragedy

Fentanyl, a dangerous drug 100 times more potent than pure morphine is at the forefront of Australia’s drug overdose crisis. Australia’s Annual Overdose Report 2017 has revealed that diverted fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is killing hundreds of Australians amid the country’s escalating overdose problem. 

The report, produced annually by Penington Institute, says Australia is on track to experience a US-style drug overdose crisis with fentanyl-related deaths, among several other drug categories, soaring in recent years.

Penington Institute CEO John Ryan said increased deaths as a result of ice, heroin and prescription medication are an alarming wake-up call signaling more needs to be done to tackle avoidable deaths occurring across Australia.

Mr Ryan says reducing barriers to accessing opioid replacement therapy is one simple measure that would get huge community benefits.

“One of the great triumphs in addiction treatment is pharmacotherapy programs such as opioid substitution treatment – this sort of treatment is highly effective at stabilising people in crisis situations,” he said.

“People who access methadone or buprenorphine currently pay dispensing fees –  a serious barrier to accessing treatment for many people.

“It is cheaper to be abusing pharmaceuticals than to be on medically assisted treatment – changing this would have enormous benefit for many people in the crisis of addiction.”

Australia’s Annual Overdose Report 2017 shows that more than twice as many Australians are now dying due to accidental overdose as compared to those dying from car accidents.  A significant increase in deaths related to pharmaceutical opioids, street heroin, and highly potent fentanyl is also highlighted in the report.

In capital cities and regional areas, Australians are now far more likely to overdose on opioids including codeine and oxycodone then by sleeping tablets such as valium (benzodiazepines) followed by alcohol, and then amphetamines.

Since the early 2000’s the number of Australians aged 30 – 59 who overdosed has more than doubled.

While these figures are alarming, the new data indicates that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are more than three times as likely to die from an accidental drug overdose as other Australians.

Mr Ryan said there needed to be shift in how the community responds to overdose and drug use more broadly.

“We need better community education for people who are experimenting with drug use before they become addicted,” he said.

“Governments can’t solve this problem on their own – responsibility needs to be shared between the community and government.”

Mr Ryan says the stigma around drug use and overdose also needs to be addressed in order to effectively address the problem.

“The stigma in relation to drug use and drug addiction is one of the great barriers for people who are experiencing problems, whether they are family member or individuals with drug problems,” he said.

“This stigma also applies to some people in the healthcare profession. There are many excellent healthcare providers, but there is also a significant taboo in relation to drug use issues.”

Mr Ryan said a review of expenditure and the allocation of resources in relation to drugs is one option to work towards a more targeted and effective response to drug use in the Australian community.

“We need a balanced approach that is reflected in budget allocation between the different pillars of an effective harm   minimisation approach,” he said.

“This needs to reflect a shared responsibility and supports local communities to actively address the harms caused by drug use.”

“Many people criticize the existing community response to drugs as being soft on drugs, when in fact it’s not. The majority of expenditure is directed towards supply reduction – law enforcement and the prison system. At the other end of the scale, harm reduction initiatives receive a tiny percentage of the funds directed towards tackling these issues.”

The principal findings are:

In 2015, there were a total of 2,023 drug-related deaths in Australia. This has increased from 1,313 deaths in 2001.

  • Men are having drug overdoses in much higher numbers than women. In 2005, accidental deaths due to drugs for males totalled 683, a figure which has steadily increased to 1,061 in 2015.
  • Women are also dying in greater numbers – from 2005 to 2015, there was a 1.4-fold increase in women dying from an accidental overdose (from 300 to 428).

The difference between accidental drug-related deaths (1,489 in 2015) and car accidents (712 in 2015) has never been so pronounced, with accidental drug-related deaths more than double the number of deaths associated with car accidents.

Accidental death due to drugs has consistently increased over the past 15 years, from 981 in 2001 to 1,489 in 2015.

  • Accidental overdose from opioids continues to overshadow accidental overdose from other drug types.
  • During 2011-2015, 3601 people died from overdose due to an opioid – a 1.6-fold increase from 2001-2005.
  • Accidental death from oxycodone, morphine, or codeine continues to be responsible for most opioid related deaths, recording 1,556 deaths over the period 2011-2015 (1.3 deaths per 100,000).
  • Australia has experienced a significant increase in fatal overdoses due to fentanyl, pethidine and tramadol. Between 2011 and 2015, 796 Australian’s overdosed on these drugs. Fentanyl is the major factor driving this increase in deaths.
  • Deaths from amphetamines have more than doubled for the period 2001-2005 to 2011-2015 across all jurisdictions. Queensland has experienced a significant growth in deaths attributed to amphetamines for this period with 25 deaths in 2001-2005 increasing to 179 deaths in 2011-15;   a per capita increase of 5.8 times (from 0.1 to 0.8 deaths per 100,000).

There has been a marked increase in overdose deaths across regional Australia.

  • In 2010, the per capita accidental death rate between metropolitan and regional Australia was similar at 6.0 (metropolitan) and 5.9 (regional). By 2015, accidental drug-related deaths in regional Australia reached 7.3 deaths per 100,000 in comparison with 5.8 deaths per 100,000 in metropolitan areas.

Middle-aged Australians are more likely to die from an accidental overdose.

  • In 2015, 70 per cent of all accidental deaths occurred within the 30-59 age group. Since 2001, the number of accidental drug-related deaths within the 30-59 year age group has almost doubled from 540 to 1,071.

Aboriginal people are over-represented across all drug types.

  • In 2015, across the five jurisdictions (NSW, Qld, WA, SA and NT) the accidental death rate per 100,000 for Aboriginal people was 18.3 compared with 5.9 for non-aboriginal people.

When looking at all drug related deaths and accidental deaths for pharmaceutical opioids the greatest increase from 2001-2005 to 2011-2015 has occurred in Queensland and Western Australia, with both jurisdictions recording a 2.7-fold increase.

  • Western Australia experienced a per capital increase from 1.5 per 100,000 (146 deaths in 2001-2005) to 4.0 per 100,000 (504 deaths in 2001-2015)
  • Queensland experienced a per capita increase from 1.2 per 100,000 (218 deaths in 2001-2005) to 3.1 per 100,000 (729 deaths in 2011-2015).

The report, produced by Penington Institute, says there has been a significant increase in deaths related to pharmaceutical opioids, heroin, and highly potent fentanyl.

Penington Institute convenes International Overdose Awareness Day and produces Australia’s Annual Overdose Report.

Media contact – Penington Institute: Ben Grundy 0420 392 202 and

August 31st, 2017|