Joint Statement from the Co-Chairs of the Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses – Latest National Data on Substance-Related Harms


June 23, 2022 | Ottawa, ON | Public Health Agency of Canada

Today, the co-chairs of the federal, provincial and territorial Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses—Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, and Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick's Chief Medical Officer of Health—issued the following statement on the release of the latest surveillance data on opioid- and stimulant-related harms in Canada from January 2016 to December 2021, and modelling projections on opioid-related deaths through to December 2022.

For many years, Canada has seen a significant rise in opioid and other substance-related deaths and harms, and this crisis continued to worsen over the course of 2021, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest data show that the number of opioid-related deaths remained high and continued to climb in 2021, with a total of 7,560 opioid-related deaths that year. While the average number of opioid-related deaths per day was eight in 2016, this number more than doubled, reaching an all-time high of 21 per day in 2021. The number of opioid-related hospitalizations also grew from 13 per day in 2016, to 17 per day in 2021. Additionally, the vast majority of opioid-related deaths continue to be accidental, and more than half also involved the use of a stimulant (e.g., cocaine, methamphetamine), underscoring the polysubstance nature of the overdose crisis.

The latest updated modelling projections from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) suggest that trends could continue with opioid-related deaths in Canada remaining high, or even increasing, over the next six months. These projections show that between 1,400 and 2,400 people could lose their lives due to opioid-related harms each quarter through to December 2022. Across all modelling scenarios, the projections underscore the critical importance of further action to address this crisis to prevent further deaths and other harms.

Substance-related harms affect people across Canada from all walks of life, but some populations have been affected more than others. A new brief report published by PHAC, suggests that in 2016 and 2017, people experiencing homelessness were overrepresented in substance-related deaths. This report provides important information to help us better understand the complex relationships between substance use and homelessness and points to opportunities for improving supports and reducing the risk of substance-related harms. While people experiencing homelessness represent a small percentage of those who died of an overdose, those who use substances face numerous compounding stigmas, tied to their housing status, substance use, and often other factors like ethnicity and mental health status, that create barriers to accessing social and health services and supports, therefore putting them at higher risk of substance-related harms.

The report on homelessness and substance-related deaths is the first of a number of publications from a national chart review study of coroner and medical examiner data, which aims to better understand the characteristics of the people who died, the substances involved, and the circumstance of their deaths. This national study, and numerous others before it, highlight that a wide range of factors can affect someone's substance use, and likelihood of experiencing substance-related harms. That is why, in addition to providing access to treatment and harm reduction measures, we must look at root causes and broader conditions to prevent substance-related harms in the first place. Strengthening community and individual resilience by ensuring adequate and affordable housing for all, facilitating social connection in communities, and supporting positive child and youth development are examples of important foundations for this critical work, and ones that necessitate strong leadership from various disciplines and sectors.

The data contained in this release underscore the seriousness of substance-related harms in Canada, and the urgent need to take further action to help prevent them. This includes the critical need to expand access to high quality, evidence-based and innovative care to support people who use drugs. We also continue to encourage families and friends supporting loved ones who use drugs, along with all Canadians, to learn about the signs of an overdose, carry naloxone, and recognize and challenge stigmatizing language and attitudes related to substance use.

Dr. Theresa Tam
Chief Public Health Officer of Canada
Co-chair, Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses

Dr. Jennifer Russell
Chief Medical Health Officer, New Brunswick
Co-chair, Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses

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