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Opioid deaths continue at high levels: federal report

Don Wall
Opioid deaths continue at high levels: federal report

The federal government’s latest report on opioid overdoses across the country suggests measures taken to combat the crisis have not yet had the effect of slowing its use.

The report from the Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses found that in Canada between January and March 2023, there were 1,904 opioid-related deaths, an average of 21 deaths per day.

The data represents a similar mortality rate to what has been observed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the number of opioid-related deaths experienced a spike.

When broken down by sex and age, men between the ages of 20 and 59 continue to be the most impacted, accounting for 64 per cent of opioid-related deaths.

The report contained no analysis of the employment circumstances of the victims but the co-author of a previous Ontario report that highlighted opioid abuse within the province’s construction trades said the findings continue to show people experiencing opioid-related harms are clustered among younger ages and males.

“I think that there is still value in continuing to highlight these factors for people in the construction sector and the importance of not using drugs alone and seeking support, harm reduction (like naloxone kits) and treatment to help prevent these harms,” stated Dr. Tara Gomes, lead author of a report released by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network in July 2022.

That report, titled Lives Lost to Opioid Toxicity among Ontarians who Worked in the Construction Industry, found there were 428 opioid toxicity deaths among workers who had a history of employment in the construction industry from July 2017 to the end of 2020 in Ontario.

Construction workers accounted for nearly one in 13 opioid toxicity deaths across Ontario over that time.

The Ontario report parallelled those from British Columbia and Alberta.

In B.C., it was found that 35 per cent of those who died of illicit drug toxicity between Aug. 1, 2017 and July 31, 2021 were employed at the time of death, and among those, 52 per cent worked in the trades, transport or as equipment operators. 

In Alberta, a review of medical examiner data from 2017 found 64 per cent of those who died from unintentional opioid-related deaths had an employment occupation listed on their death certificate, 53 per cent of whom worked in trades, transport or as equipment operators. 

Nationally, since 2016, approximately three of four opioids-related deaths claimed men, and 30 to 50 per cent of those employed worked in trades at the time of their death.

Some days when opioid-related deaths occur are worse than others suggested Richard Hayter, director of community relations for the eastern Ontario Building Trades

“There was one day in Ottawa when two out of the five opioid deaths that day were construction workers,” recalled Hayter.

The co-chairs of the Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses, Dr. Theresa Tam and Dr. Yves Leger, wrote in the report that in addition to the growth in toxic drug supply, the overdose crisis in Canada is a public health crisis caused by many social and economic factors that place some people at greater risk of substance-related harms.

“Tackling these issues requires a co-ordinated public health approach that includes a range of actions across jurisdictions and across the continuum of care, from upstream prevention efforts, to harm reduction services and supports, to reducing stigma, in addition to access and support for treatment and recovery,” the report stated.

Public Health Agency of Canada spokesperson Charlaine Sleiman noted in a statement that the federal government has launched the Easing the Burden campaign aimed at men working in trades.

The report offers a list of resources and advice on saving a life.

Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.

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