City News

Overdose is the state’s “silent killer”

Prescription drugs were associated with more overdose related deaths in NSW than illicit ones. Photo: Flickr/The Javorac


According to new data more than 500 New South Wales residents lost their lives to overdose for the fifth consecutive year.

The data released by the Penington Institute reveals 524 NSW residents, or one person every 18 hours, lost their lives due to unintentional overdoses in 2018. In the Greater Sydney area six deaths per 100,000 were overdose related compared to 7.9 per 100,000 deaths across regional NSW.

John Ryan, CEO of the Penington Institute said the number of overdose related deaths in the state is “absolutely unacceptable”.

“The persistence of these numbers suggests one thing above all: we are not doing enough to lessen the harms of drugs in our largest state,”

Much of the discussion about drug overdose in NSW surrounds party drugs and music festivals. Headlines were made last December when a 24-year-old man attending Strawberry Fields music festival in NSW’s Riverina region passed away from a suspected drug overdose. His death came during a time the state’s music festivals were under heightened scrutiny following a coronial inquest after six drug-related deaths at events across two summers. 

However according to the Penington Institute’s research, it’s not illicit drugs which are associated with most overdose deaths in NSW. In contrast to other states where heroin and ice were most commonly associated with overdoses, in NSW it is pharmaceutical opioids and benzodiazepines which are driving overdose deaths.

Benzodiazepines including Diazepam and Temazepam, which the Penington Institute describes as Australia’s “silent killers”, are commonly used to treat anxiety and insomnia. It is this type of drug which is most often detected in unintentional overdose deaths in NSW. In 2018 alone there were 198 deaths associated with these substances.

“Not enough Australians understand the potential risks of drugs you can get from your doctor or from the pharmacy around the corner and importantly the dangers of combining drugs,” said Mr. Ryan.

Mr. Ryan also has concerns about a potential increase in use of benzodiazepines  post COVID-19.

“We know there are currently critical shortages of antidepressants in Australia and we know it’s at least partly because of increased demand as people try to cope with the stress of COVID-19,” he said.

“That tells us that, in addition to the many other long-term effects of the pandemic, we may see increased harms involving antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications in the years to come.”

The Penington Institute said the findings highlight the need to increase access to harm reduction services including Opioid Substitution Treatment, Take Home Naloxone and Needle and Syringe Programs. They also highlight a need for continued education about drug use and harm reduction.

The data was released to coincide with International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD) which is held on the 31st of August every year. It aims to raise awareness about overdose and reduce the stigma around drug related deaths. 

“This is Australia’s hidden health crisis. By releasing this Report with the most up-to-date data, we’re looking to start a conversation, bring overdose out of the shadows and ultimately reduce harms,” said Mr. Ryan.

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