A new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare suggests Australia stands on the precipice of an opioid epidemic similar to the one ravaging the United States. Using data from the 2016 National Drug Household Survey (NDHS), the Institute finds that around one million Australians aged 14 and over are using prescription painkillers for non-medical reasons. There have also been more prescription drug-related deaths over the past decade than deaths caused by illicit drug use.
The report shows that pharmaceutical abuse is rising steadily in Australia. In 2007, 3.7 percent of Australians were using painkillers and tranquilisers like opioid analgesics and benzodiazepines. That’s jumped to 4.8 percent in 2016. Around 30 percent of people are abusing these drugs on a daily or weekly basis, and more than half are obtaining the drugs over the counter, rather than by illegal means.
To put these results into perspective, note that only one illegal drug is being used at a higher rate than prescription pharmaceuticals, and that's cannabis.
As rates of pharmaceutical addiction increase, so do drug-related deaths. Over the past decade, the number of pharmaceutical-related deaths where either opioids or benzodiazepines were present rose by 127 percent and 168 percent respectively. According to the NDHS, in 2016 there were 663 drug-induced deaths involving benzodiazepines, and 550 caused by opioids like oxycodone, morphine, and codeine.
These numbers are predicted to climb in coming years. The Institute likens Australia’s opioid problem to that of the United States, saying that the US prescription drug crisis provides a blueprint for what could happen here if safeguards against the non-medical use of pharmaceuticals were loosened.
Further restrictions are actually on their way, with a ban on over-the-counter codeine set to come into effect in February 2018. The Federal Government has also toyed with the idea of a prescription monitoring scheme that could make it more difficult for customers to double up and shop around for pharmaceuticals.
You can read more about the Institute's findings here.