09 May 2016

Why so serious – Australia’s silent drug epidemic?

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Heath Ledger, one of Australia’s sweethearts died tragically in 2008 following an overdose to prescription painkillers. 

When talking about drug-related problems in Australia, illicit drug use is often at the forefront of concern. But today, painkillers are becoming some of the most commonly misused drugs.

The Australian Medical Association has labelled  prescription drug abuse a “national emergency”. Addiction Medicine Physician and Senior Clinical Lecturer, Dr Rodger Brough has gone as far as to say that that the use and abuse of painkillers now outweighs the severity of ice. 

The severity of Australia’s silent epidemic is multi-faceted. Our issues largely due to the fact that:

Most addictions arise from legal prescriptions
  • Over 80% per cent  of addicts admitted that their addiction to painkillers followed legal prescriptions. The fact that practitioners are upping prescription rates does not help the matter - Australia’s Oxycodone prescriptions having increased over 180 per cent!     

There is a lack of awareness around painkiller severity 
  • People focus on the detriment of illicit drugs. However we must acknowledge the fact that the number of overdoses attributed to painkiller abuse has significantly increased (now rivalling that of heroin overdoses). Medical professionals are concerned that attentiveness to prescription drug abuse has been ‘displaced from the public conscience’.    

Users of painkillers are likely to switch to heroin use
  • Often addicts migrate from the abuse of lawfully produced substances, switching to the use of illicit drugs – heroin being the most common.  

Putting our addiction in perspective:
  • Painkillers have now overtaken heroin as the cause of calls to drug treatment services.
  • In Melbourne, counselling helplines now receive more than double the calls about prescription drugs as they do about heroin.
  • In Sydney it was recorded that there was more than three times as many visits paid each month for the injection of crushed opioid tablets as compared to heroin.
  • Approximately one third of drug users have reported injecting oxycodone, having increased by 17 per cent in five years.


Prescription drug misuse is not only an issue for Australia but far reaching concern in both Europe and the United States. There are more deaths in the US attributed to the use of prescribed opioids than to heroin and cocaine combined.

Solving the issue at hand will be no easy feat. It requires the work of medical practitioners, law enforcement, community service groups and society at large. Much of the work must stem from community engagement and education, providing people with alternative solutions for pain relief.

Medical practitioners often feel pressured to prescribe painkillers due to patient needs. Hence re-shaping society’s beliefs would be a great starting point. Similar issues are prevalent in the misuse and abuse of antibiotics. It was found that 60% of all GPs prescribed antibiotics just to satisfy patient demands.

Come along to Akolade’s 2nd National Forum Targeting and Evaluating Antimicrobial Stewardship to hear about Australia’s great solutions for antibiotic ill use.    

Ashley has lived on Manly beachfront her entire life – she worships the sun and chases it year round. Having recently finished her Bachelor of Business in Portugal’s gorgeous capital, Lisbon, she thought that producing conferences at Akolade would be a great new experience.  Ashley loves her new dinner-time conversation, enlightening people on her research topics! 


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