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 26, 2023 | 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. Yves Léger, New Brunswick's Acting 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 2022.

These latest data suggest that from January to December 2022, 7,328 individuals—or an average of 20 people per day—died of an opioid overdose in Canada. This represents 9% fewer deaths than in 2021, when 22 people on average died of an opioid overdose every day. Trends are similar for hospitalizations; in 2022, an average of 14 people were hospitalized each day for opioid-related poisoning in Canada, compared to 17 people in 2021.

While it is encouraging to see decreased rates of opioid- and stimulant-related harms, the scale of these harms remains significant. We must not lose sight that behind these statistics are people whose lives were lost or threatened on account of the highly toxic and unpredictable drug supply.

Today, in addition to its latest data on opioid- and stimulant-related harms, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) also published new modelling projections on opioid-related deaths between now and December 2023. Under certain scenarios, between 1,430 and 2,320 could lose their lives to opioid toxicity every three months through to the end of 2023. The results suggest that while the number of opioid-related deaths may remain stable or decrease from now until the end of 2023, they may also remain higher than what was observed before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A comprehensive approach is required to reduce harms and save lives

The toxic illegal drug supply continues to ravage communities across our nation. Fentanyl and its analogues represent a major driver, as is apparent in the data published today. For example, 81% percent of accidental opioid-related deaths last year involved fentanyl. This figure increased from between 57% and 74% of deaths in the pre-pandemic years of this public health crisis (from 2016 to 2020). Since late 2019, data analysis of illegal drug seizures from Health Canada show an increased detection of fentanyl combined with sedatives such as benzodiazepines, which can complicate the management of overdose and may increase the risk of death.

In addition to the toxic and unpredictable drug supply, a combination of factors is fuelling this public health crisis in Canada. This includes social and economic factors that place some people at greater risk of substance-related harms, such as experiences of trauma, economic insecurity, homelessness, social isolation and stigma.

The significant complexity of this crisis—and unique challenges posed by our toxic drug supply—call for a bold, nimble, comprehensive and evidence-based approach to meet people where they are at, reduce harms and save lives. This includes a range of actions, including robust prevention efforts, harm reduction services and supports, stigma reduction efforts and accessible treatment options, in addition to broader work to foster conditions that promote health and well-being generally, for all people in Canada, and particularly those from marginalized communities.

There are many key examples of promising actions across the country. As an example of an evidence-based approach to prevention efforts, New Brunswick is implementing Planet Youth New Brunswick in four regions across the province as a five-year pilot project. The project involves the adaptation and implementation of a community-based program to prevent and delay substance use among young people, known as the Icelandic Prevention Model, which has proven to be effective in reducing substance use and its harms in Iceland for over 20 years. This pilot project, and other novel intervention efforts designed to prevent substance-related harms across Canada, are generating invaluable evidence that will allow us to respond to the crisis in a more effective and equitable way.

To this end, we must continue to improve data collection and continually measure the results of our actions to identify best practices, as our response to this deadly crisis must evolve as the nature and scale of the crisis does, and in keeping with the evolving evidence of what works and in what context.

We 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. If someone you know or love is struggling or has questions about substance use, Wellness Together Canada and other resources can help.

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

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

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