The ‘extra-medical’ use of opioids is costing Australia around $15.7 billion and causing more than 2200 deaths a year.

A new study has estimated the social and economic costs of opioid use to Australia. It defines ‘extra-medical’ opioid use as the illegal use of heroin and the misuse of pharmaceutical opioids (‘not as prescribed’).

The study found that in this context, opioid use is responsible for $5.6 billion in direct tangible costs, including healthcare costs, reduced productivity and worker absence, crime, and road traffic accidents, as well as $10.1 billion in intangible costs, due to the premature death of 2,203 people and over 70,000 years of life lost.

An estimated 645,000 Australians engaged in ‘extra-medical’ use of opioids in the 12-month period covered by the research.

“Extra-medical use of opioids is likely to result in adverse outcomes that require the use of health services, reduce work productivity, or result in contact with the criminal justice system,” says Professor Steve Allsop from the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) at Curtin University.

“The rate of opioid-related deaths has increased over the past two decades. With most deaths occurring in early to mid-life, that represents a huge cost to Australian society. This cost underlines the importance of the recent investments in strategies to address this growing problem, including investment in a national overdose strategy and real-time monitoring systems.”

Professor Louisa Degenhardt, another researcher involved in the study, explained that since the peak of the ‘heroin crisis’ in the late 1990s, the types of opioids being used has changed.

“It is concerning that people are being prescribed opioid medications for chronic pain when there is little evidence that opioids are effective for these conditions” she said.

“Improving access to opioid treatment programs as well as overdose prevention medications could help reduce the cost of extra-medical opioid use in Australia.”

More information is accessible here.