More Aussies Dying From Prescription Painkillers Than Heroin, Damning Figures Reveal

Deaths from opioid abuse have increased by 62 percent over a decade -- and it's Australian women who are its biggest users.

More Australians are dying from prescription drug overdoses than heroin, according to a report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

It is the first time the AIHW has produced a comprehensive national report on opioid use and abuse.

In 2016, prescription opiates were the cause of more deaths and hospitalisations that illicit forms of the drug (such as heroin).

Prescription opiates, include oxycodone, codeine and fentanyl -- most often used to manage chronic pain.

The rate of opioid deaths rose by 62% from 2007 to 2016. Image: Getty Images

The report also shows the rates of opioid deaths and opioid poisoning hospitalisations in Australia has increased considerably over the past 10 years.

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation says it is "extremely concerned" about the high number of pharmaceutical-related deaths in Australia.

"Too many Australians are dying or overdosing from prescription medication," Geoff Munro, the Alcohol and Drug Foundation’s Policy Manager said.

Munro said many people have a lax attitude towards pharmaceutical drugs -- and it's dangerous.

"Perceptions that pharmaceutical medications are ‘safe’ because they are usually prescribed by a medical professional, means some people overlook the dangers.

"All Australians need to know that pharmaceuticals can be addictive and even fatal when misused," he told 10 daily.

Around 3.1 million people were dispensed opioid prescriptions in 2016–17 -- and women we more likely to get their hands on them.

Females accounted for 55 percent of individuals receiving 1 or more prescriptions in 2016–17.

READ MORE: Most Overdose Deaths Now Due To Prescription Drugs

One in 10 Australians have ever used opioids for illicit or non-medical purposes.

"As patients, we often demand a prescription and many want the most powerful medication. A lot of people are unaware that less harmful, prescription medication is available, " Munro said.

As well as non-drug alternatives such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), the ADF recommends exercise, meditation, relaxation and breathing techniques to manage pain or deal with other conditions including mental illness.

How Do We Compare To Our North American Counterparts?

The AIHW study compared Canada and Australia -- citing the countries similar population and public health care systems.

Side effects from opioid use are responsible for the greatest number of hospitalisations in both Canada and Australia.

Illicit use of fentanyl is more common in Canada than it is in Australia, while heroin use is higher in Australia than in Canada.

Side effects from opioid use are responsible for the greatest number of hospitalisations. IMAGE: Getty Images

In a separate study,  lead by Dr Amy Peacock from UNSW, analysed 2016 data on drug deaths.

Peacock said the situation in Australia is different to North America.

“Opioid overdoses in the US and Canada are increasing, but the rates they are observing are far higher and there is considerable evidence that illicit fentanyl is driving many of the deaths

READ MORE: 'I Get So Angry': More Australians Are Dying From Painkiller Overdoses Than Ever

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, roughly 100 times more potent than morphine.

"Although we are carefully monitoring the situation in Australia, at the moment, there is little evidence to suggest that illicit fentanyl is playing a large part in our opioid overdoses,” Peacock said.

What Is Being Done About It IN Australia?

The Australian Government committed $16 million in July 2017 for a national real-time monitoring system for select Schedule 8 medicines, including morphine and oxycodone.

'Doctor shopping' is the practice of visiting multiple physicians to obtain multiple prescriptions. IMAGE: Getty Images

The Australian Drug Foundation (ADF) says every state and territory urgently needs to introduce real-time prescription monitoring systems

Real-time prescription monitoring aims to minimise ‘doctor-shopping’, by alerting doctors and pharmacists if patients have received multiple supplies of monitored medicines from other practitioners.

As of February this year, codeine became a prescription-only medicine in Australia. Prescriptions are now needed to buy codeine-containing medications such as Nurofen Plus and Panadeine.

The ADF is also pushing for a wider distribution and better access to naloxone for family and friends of people with opioid dependencies.

Naloxone can reverse opioid overdoses and save lives.

Peacock said one of the most important and effective strategies to reduce overdoses is increasing the availability of "opioid substitution therapy."

"For people who have developed opioid dependence -- and encouraging engagement and retention in this treatment. We need to ensure that this remains a key strategy in Australia,” she said.

Featured Image: Getty Images

Contact the author