Australia’s Annual Overdose Report 2021 reveals that more than 2,000 Australians have lost their lives to overdose for the sixth year in a row.


Australia’s Annual Overdose Report 2021 reveals that there have been 34,728 overdose deaths in Australia since the turn of the century.

That figure includes 2,227 overdose deaths in 2019, 1,644 of which were unintentional.

The numbers should speak for themselves. Unfortunately, they’re not being heard.

Deaths from overdoses have outnumbered the road toll since 2014. Yet while governments commit themselves to the important work of reducing the road toll, overdoses continue to claim the lives of thousands of our loved ones in virtual silence.

Overdose hides in plain sight. If there are 30 non-fatal overdoses for every fatal one, as research suggests, then there have been approximately one million overdoses this century. Drug and alcohol poisoning, a category which is overwhelmingly made up by drug overdoses, is the second-leading cause of death for Australians in their thirties while for those in their twenties and forties, it’s the third-leading cause of death.

It’s present in every corner of our communities. It affects Australians of all ages, in the country and the city. Although you’d be forgiven for thinking that illicit drugs are the main substances implicated in overdose, pharmaceutical drugs – opioids, benzodiazepines (sedative drugs), anti-depressants and anti-convulsants – are detected in most overdose deaths.

Despite its broad prevalence, the burden of overdose deaths is not evenly shared.

Aboriginal Australians are almost four times as likely to die of an overdose than non-Aboriginal Australians. Overdose deaths are more common in rural and regional areas, Australians in middle age and men.

Combining the Commonwealth’s own estimate of the value of a year of life lost with the average of 33 years of life lost for each overdose death means that overdose deaths alone cost our economy more than $15.5 billion every year. The cost to the families who lose a loved one is impossible to calculate.

This year’s Annual Overdose Report contains many findings that should prompt a shift in our approach, to drug policies based on lived experience and research.
John Ryan
The best place to begin is with a National Overdose Prevention Strategy, developed in close collaboration with people with lived experience, frontline workers and other experts. It must fearlessly address the drivers of drug use, the diversity of drugs that are causing overdose and how overdose risks are evolving. This strategy must be developed carefully but – crucially – it must also be developed urgently.

Australia’s Annual Overdose Report 2021 is a bitter dose of reality. It is time to finally treat this crisis with the seriousness it deserves.

John Ryan
CEO, Penington Institute

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Email: r.ryan@penington.org.au