24 July 2019

Opioids still the leading cause of drug deaths

Drugs Pharmaceuticals Research

Pharmaceutical opioids are still responsible for the greatest proportion of drug induced deaths in Australia, and that rate has been rising over the past decade, but it is still below the rate reached in 1999.

There were nearly 1800 drug-induced fatalities in Australia in 2017, according to preliminary estimates provided by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at the University of NSW earlier this month.

Most of those deaths were accidental, with more than half (63%) attributed to opioid use, with most of that number being pharmaceutical opioids, the NDARC report said.

Many of the deaths caused by opioids also involved other sedative medicines, such as benzodiazepines, antipsychotics and pregabalin, the program lead for drug trends at NDARC, Dr Amy Peacock, said.

“Increased prescribing of these medicines, as well as improved routine testing for substances such as pregabalin in drug-induced deaths, must be considered when studying trends involving these substances,” Dr Peacock said.

Among other drug classes, amphetamines were present in the toxicology reports of 21.5% of drug-induced deaths in 2017, benzodiazepines were present in 45% of cases, heroin in 22% and 2% for cocaine.

The NDARC report also showed a shift over time to higher rates of drug-induced deaths in older age groups among both males and females.

In 2017, the highest rate of drug-induced deaths among females occurred among the 45-54 age group (10.5 deaths per 100,000 people) and among males in the 35-44 age group (20.9 deaths per 100,000 people).