The opioid epidemic: Australia’s silent killer

Prescription opiates are leading cause of death in both the US and Australia.


It’s the leading cause of death in Americans under 50, and now the deadliest drug crisis in US history is making its way Down Under. 

Every week, more and more Australians are dying from the abuse of prescription painkillers such as fentanyl, codeine and morphine.

Drug and Alcohol Foundation national policy manager Geoff Munro said prescription opioids were killing more Australians than street opioids such as heroin.

“It’s killing 600 or more Australians a year and doing enormous damage,” Mr Munro said. 

“If [fentanyl] gets out into the community or comes from illegal sources, it is highly, highly toxic.”

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported there were 1808 drug-induced deaths in 2016, the highest in 20 years since a heroin-fuelled peak in the late 1990s. 

“In 2016, an individual dying from a drug-induced death in Australia was most likely to be a middle-aged male, living outside of a capital city who is misusing prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines or oxycodone in a polypharmacy (the use of multiple drugs) setting,” the report said. The death was most likely to be an accident.

In the US, 115 people die from overdoses of opioids every day, making it the leading killer of young and middle-aged people, the US National Institute on Drug abuse said in March. 


In an effort to curb the misuse of pharmaceutical opioids, medications containing codeine, such as Panadeine and Nurofen Plus, were upscheduled from S2/S3 (over the-counter) to S4 (prescription-only) from February 1, 2018.

Healthcare professionals are concerned the change could cause as many problems as it solves.

Pharmacist Fiona Nhan

Pharmacist Fiona Nhan said it was a step in the right direction, but it would do little to solve the growing epidemic.

“The people who are really addicted will always find a way to get it,” Ms Nhan said. “There are still no mechanisms in place to stop people from ‘doctor shopping’ and going to different GPs to get multiple prescriptions.

“It’s also quite inconvenient for the general public, because they now have to book doctor’s appointments for acute, short-term pain, such as migraines, where previously they could have just gone straight to their local pharmacy.”