Canberra's prescription drug deaths continue to rise
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Canberra's prescription drug deaths continue to rise

Researchers say Australians are underestimating the danger of pharmaceutical drugs, with the Territory's prescription opioid deaths tripling in a decade.

A new report from the Penington Institute, Australia's Annual Overdose Report 2018, warns Australia is heading towards a United States style drug overdose crisis.

Prescription drug deaths are on the rise.

Prescription drug deaths are on the rise. Credit:AFR

The report showed 2177 Australian lives were lost to drug overdose in 2016 - the highest number in 20 years.

It also found Australians were misusing prescription pain killers like fentanyl unlike any previous time in history.

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In the ACT the number of deaths from benzodiazepines - types of anti anxiety and sleeping pills - jumped from eight deaths in 2002-06 to 20 deaths in 2012-16.

In those same two periods, accidental prescription opioid deaths more than tripled from 10 deaths to 31.

Deaths from illicit drugs in the ACT also rose with 10 accidental deaths from amphetamines in 2002-06 up to 16 deaths in 2012-16.

During the same periods deaths from heroin rose from 17 to 29 deaths.

Penington Institute CEO John Ryan said the country needed a successful community campaign like the road toll to combat the increase of deaths.

He said twice as many Australians were dying from drug overdoses than in car accidents.

Mr Ryan said most drug deaths involved a cocktail of drugs with benzodiazepines increasingly present.

"People are underestimating the danger of pharmaceutical drugs, particularly the danger of combining them," he said.

"Sleeping and anxiety pills are thought of as trouble free but because they've got such a long half life they're complex drugs that stay in your system a long time and that exacerbates the risk of overdose.

"There's a false sense of security with pharmaceutical drugs - they come in a proper packet with a controlled dose.

"But they are as dangerous or more dangerous than illicit drugs when used in combination. "

Mr Ryan said overdoses affected people from all walks of life and backgrounds, not confined to certain socio economic groups.

But the research also showed age was a signficant factor, with most deaths happening between the ages of 30 and 59.

"It's so many lives lost and so many futures ended," Mr Ryan said.

"There's a lot of stigma around overdoses and a lot of families are not allowed to grieve in the same way after a loss from cancer or other type of accident."

Nationally, the report showed pharmaceutical opioids account for 70 per cent of opioid related deaths and about 45 per cent of all accidental drug related deaths.

Prescription opioid deaths rose 87 per cent from 2008 to 2014.

Prescriptions issued for opioids have jumped dramatically from 10 million a year in 2009 to a huge 14 million annually today.

The report said 20 years ago the most common drug causing accidental death was heroin, an illicit opioid.

But today, pharmaceutical opioids are responsible for the majority of overdose deaths with a with a strong association between increases in prescription of opioids and increased mortality.

“Australia is sadly sleepwalking towards a United States style drug overdose crisis," Mr Ryan said.

"We are tracking exactly the same way as the USA, Canada and the UK who have all experienced very sharp increases in fatal overdoses in recent years."

Mr Ryan urged the Federal Government to review the prescription of fentanyl and increase drug treatment options across the country.

He also would like to see a Productivity Commission review of current drug policy and easier access to the opioid overdose-reversing drug naloxone.

The report was released in the lead up to International Overdose Awareness Day held on Friday.

Daniella White is a reporter for The Canberra Times with a special focus on health issues