Nearly 4,000 Canadians died from opioid overdoses in 2017, according to new data released Tuesday by the federal government’s special advisory committee on opioid overdoses.
This is an increase of 34 per cent from the year before and in line with predictions from last winter.
WATCH: B.C. has highest number of recorded opioid deaths in Canada
Most of these deaths were accidental, and the vast majority involved fentanyl or fentanyl analogues — 72 per cent. Non-opioid drugs were also involved in about 71 per cent of accidental opioid overdose deaths, according to information from the Public Health Agency of Canada.
These are preliminary numbers and might change a little as some deaths are re-examined.
“I am deeply concerned by the opioid crisis in Canada,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, in a statement.
“This is unlike any other public health crisis we have experienced in recent years.”
Canadians are also increasingly being hospitalized due to apparent overdoses, at a rate of 17 people a day, according to data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
Opioid-related overdose is now the leading cause of death among 30-39 year olds, Tam said. “These data represent the loss of valuable life.”
“They represent the loss of family members, loved ones, and friends, and highlight how this crisis is devastating for Canadians from all walks of life and communities across Canada,” she said.
“We know that we need to reverse the trend of this crisis.”
The federal government announced new measures Tuesday that it says will help address the ongoing opioid crisis.
The government intends to “severely restrict” the marketing of opioids and is seeking comment from interested parties on how to do this, including limiting the format, frequency and cost of opioid marketing and advertising.
LISTEN BELOW: 630 CHED’s Ryan Jespersen speaks with Alberta deputy medical officer of health about the opioid crisis
Currently, pharmaceutical companies can’t market opioids directly to the public, but Health Canada says marketing, such as through medical journal ads, presentations at conferences and other measures, can influence the way health professionals dispense prescriptions. Tighter rules will help reduce over-prescribing.
Health Canada plans to introduce proposed regulations on this in early 2019.
However, although Canadians are increasingly being harmed by opioids, they’re already getting them less and less from doctors. The number of opioids dispensed decreased by 10 per cent between 2016 and 2017, and the number of prescriptions dropped as well.
“Illegal fentanyl continues to be a factor in many opioid-related deaths and its increased presence and toxicity in the drug supply is fuelling the opioid crisis,” reads a statement from the special advisory committee.
When asked why the government was targeting advertising now, given that prescriptions are down, Suzy McDonald, assistant deputy minister for the Opioid Response Team at Health Canada, said that the opioid crisis is complex and that many factors contributed to where Canada is today.
“We don’t expect that any one measure will be the measure that solves this crisis, but what we are hoping is that by putting in place many measures, including on treatment, including on prevention, including harm reduction, and certainly on removing stigma, that all of the measures working together will get us to a place where we can turn the tide on the crisis.”
The government is also providing funding to a number of programs, including developing a standardized national surveillance system to monitor the content of illegal drugs and a training program for pharmacists in B.C. to increase their knowledge of drugs like naloxone to treat overdoses and treatments like methadone to help manage opioid addiction.
The opioid crisis is taking a particular toll in B.C., which has both the highest number of recorded deaths, 1,470, and the highest rate of deaths in Canada, over 20 per 100,000 people.
—With a file from the Canadian Press