Urgent action needed to address growing opioid crisis

opioid crisis

(OECD, 2019)

This article is brought to you in association with OECD.


Governments should treat the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis and improve treatment, care and support for people misusing opioids. Overdose deaths continue to rise, fuelled by an increase in prescription and over-prescription of opioids for pain management and the illicit drugs trade, according to a new OECD report.

Addressing Problematic Opioid Use in OECD Countries examines how, over the past few years, the crisis has devastated families and communities, especially in North America. It documents that deaths are also rising sharply in Sweden, Norway, Ireland, and England and Wales.

Between 2011 and 2016, in the 25 OECD countries with available data, opioid-related deaths increased by more than 20%. In Canada, for example, there were more than ten thousand opioid-related deaths between January 2016 and September 2018, with rates increasing from 8.4 per 100,000 people to 11.8 over this period. Opioid abuse has also put a growing burden on health services through hospitalisation and emergency room visits.

“The opioid epidemic has hit the most vulnerable hardest,” said Gabriela Ramos, OECD Chief of Staff and G20 Sherpa, launching the report in Paris. “Governments need to take decisive action to stop the tragic loss of life and address the terrible social, emotional and economic costs of addiction with better treatment and health policy solutions. But the most effective policy remains prevention.”

The majority of those who die in Europe are men, accounting for 3 out of 4 deaths. However, in the United States, opioid use has been rising among pregnant women, particularly among those on low incomes. Having a mental health disorder was also associated with a two-fold greater use of prescription opioids in the US.

Prisoners too are vulnerable. The prevalence rate of opioid use disorders in Europe was less than 1% among the general public but averaged 30% in the prison population. Social and economic conditions, such as unemployment and housing, have also contributed to the epidemic.

An increase in prescription and over-prescription of opioids for pain management is among the factors driving the crisis. Governments should review industry regulations to ensure they protect people from harm as, since the late 1990s, manufacturers have consistently downplayed the problematic effect of opioids.

Doctors should improve their prescribing practices, for instance through evidence-based clinical guidelines and increased surveillance of opioid prescriptions. Governments can also regulate  marketing and financial relationships with opioid manufacturers. Coverage for long-term medication-assisted therapy, such as methadone and buprenorphine, should be expanded, in coordination with harm minimisation specialised services for infectious diseases management, such as HIV and hepatitis.

Strengthening the integration of health and social services, such as unemployment and housing support, and criminal justice systems would help improve treatment for people with Opioid Use Disorder.

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