A steadily worsening scourge killed an estimated five Australians every day in 2019, with most of the fatalities occurring in relatively young men.
Across the board, the number of deaths and the rate of death has been steadily increasing each year for 15 years, despite huge amounts of money being spent to prevent tragedy.
A report released today by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at UNSW found there were 1865 drug-induced deaths in Australia in 2019, which is the equivalent of five fatalities every day.
“This is the fifth year in a row where the number of deaths is higher than the earlier peak in the late 1990s,” Dr Amy Peacock, program lead for the Drug Trends program, said.
The preliminary rate of death is 7.4 fatalities per 100,000 people, which has been increasingly steadily now since 2006.
The report found opioids, including both prescription medications and heroin, were again the main substance in drug-induced deaths in 2019, linked to 1121 fatalities.
Of those, 873 deaths were deemed to be unintentional – or an accidental fatal overdose.
“This is the first year the number of opioid-induced deaths involving heroin (474) has surpassed that of natural and semisynthetic opioids (460),” Dr Peacock said.
The total number of deaths in 2019 linked to opioids is almost on par with the number of people killed in the worst years of the heroin epidemic in Australia in the late 1990s.
Distinct patterns emerging in the data
When it comes to other substances, the rate of deaths involving amphetamines was four times that recorded in 2009, while cocaine-induced fatalities more than doubled between 2016 and 2019.
A breakdown of the data shows some other distinct trends.
Two-in-three deaths occurred among men, with the highest rate of fatalities in the 45 to 54 age bracket, followed closely by those aged 35 to 44.
A look at trends over time shows younger Aussies are increasingly less likely to die of a drug-induced death, while older people are more likely.
“In the late 1990s, deaths were driven by those in the younger age. The rate of drug-induced deaths among the 25 to 34 age group has since declined.
“By contrast, the greatest increase over time has been in the 45 to 54 age group. Indeed, (this age group) overtook all other age groups in respect to the number and rate of drug-induced deaths in 2019.
“Another large increase has occurred in the 55 to 64 age group.”
While the mortality rate among people aged 15 to 24 has remained low for the past 15 years, there has been a slight uptick in recent years, from 2.7 deaths per 100,000 people in 2018 to 3.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2019.
The highest rate of drug deaths was in Western Australia – for the third consecutive year.
In 2019, the rate of drug-induced deaths was similar in major cities, inner regional and outer regional areas, and the lowest in remote and very remote areas.
At least one psychosocial risk factor for mortality – such as unemployment or underemployment, homelessness, or a social and family support issue – was present in one-in-four unintentional deaths and three-in-five intentional deaths.
The most frequent risk factor identified in both unintentional and intentional deaths was a history of self-harm.
But perhaps the most alarming trend in the data is the consistent annual increase in deaths.
“There was a peak in drug-induced deaths in the late 1990s, followed by a decline in the early to mid 2000s,” the report outlines.
“Since 2006, drug-induced deaths in Australia have increased. The number of deaths recorded each year from 2015 to 2019 has been higher than the number observed during the earlier peak in deaths in the late 1990s.”