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


September 28, 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 monitoring data on opioid and stimulant-related harms in Canada. This release provides an update on data collected from January to March 2023 and builds on historical data that has been collected every quarter since 2016.

These latest data suggest that in Canada between January and March 2023, there were 1,904 opioid-related deaths – or an average of 21 deaths per day. This 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 increased.

When broken down by sex and age, men between the ages of 20 and 59 continue to be the most impacted, accounting for 64% of opioid-related deaths, although data is subject to change as more investigations are completed.

Hospitalizations for opioid-related poisoning in Canada between January and March 2023 are also similar to last year, with an average of 15 hospitalizations each day, and appear to have returned to levels observed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This release also includes a brief report showing that repeat hospitalizations were more common for substance-related disorders (for example an opioid use disorder; or a medical condition related to the use of substances, such as alcoholic liver disease) compared to substance-related poisonings over 5 years (2016 to 2021) in Canada. Understanding the characteristics of people with repeat hospitalizations for substance-related harms can help inform prevention strategies, harm reduction interventions, as well as treatment and recovery services and systems. The report highlights that repeat interactions with the healthcare system could provide opportunities to support individuals experiencing substance-related harms.

Collecting this data is critical to understanding the scope of this challenging and complex public health crisis, as well as to guide public health decision making and action across Canada. We must not lose sight that behind these statistics are people whose lives have been lost and whose families and communities have been severely impacted by substance-related harms.

A holistic public health approach is required to address the crisis

In addition to the 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, such as experiences of trauma, economic insecurity, homelessness, social isolation and stigma.

Tackling these issues requires a coordinated 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. Fundamentally, we must listen and learn from the voices and expertise of people with lived or living experience, to guide our response efforts and ensure we are meeting people where they are at.

Across the country, there are many examples of promising actions being taken to help prevent and reduce harms from substance use. This includes The Fourth R —a school-based program that builds capacity to teach adolescents about safety and risk. Through this program, students are better equipped with the skills they need to build healthy relationships and reduce risky behaviours including the use of drugs and alcohol.

An innovative example in Saskatchewan is focussed on reducing and preventing harm for people who use drugs. It involves the use of an infrared spectrometer drug-checking device to alert people who use drugs if contaminants are present, allowing them to take action to reduce the risk of overdose. Similar initiatives also exist in other jurisdictions across Canada.

In addition, Moms Stop the Harm has been working diligently to address stigma, a significant barrier to life saving medical treatment faced by many people affected by addiction. They oversee a network of volunteer and paid peer facilitators with lived and living experience of addiction across Canada. They offer support services that provide families with information on evidence-based services and resources. They also offer harm reduction education to families on how to help keep their loved ones safe, as well as grief support to families that have lost loved ones to overdoses.

We continue to encourage all Canadians - decision makers, health care professionals, service providers, families and friends supporting loved ones who use drugs - to learn more about the latest evidence and how they can make a difference. Concrete actions we can all take include learning about the signs of an overdose, carrying naloxone, and recognizing and challenging 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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