By Man et al., National Illicit Drug Indicators Project

Each year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) makes available to Drug Trends in-depth data on drug-induced deaths in Australia. This year, we have produced a suite of products to summarise trends in drug-induced deaths in Australia from 1997 to 2018.

Key findings:

  • Preliminary estimates indicate that there were 1,740 drug-induced deaths among Australians in 2018 (1,549 drug-induced deaths among those aged 15-64 years). This estimate does not include deaths where conditions related to alcohol or tobacco were the underlying cause of death.
  • This number equates to nearly five drug-induced deaths per day in 2018, a similar figure to that observed in 2017 (1,795 deaths). It is also similar to the number recorded during the peak in deaths in 1999 (1,740 deaths).
  • The rate of deaths in 2018 was 7.0 deaths per 100,00 people (9.5 deaths per 100,000 people aged 15-64). The rate of drug-induced deaths has been increasing since 2006 yet remains lower than the peak rate observed in 1999.
  • Higher rates of drug-induced deaths were observed among males, but there has been a shift from younger (25-34) to older (35-54) age groups over the period of monitoring across both males and females. The gap in rate of deaths between males and females lessened with older age in 2018.
  • In 2018, the majority of drug-induced deaths among Australians were deemed accidental (70%), although nearly one-in-five deaths (23%) were considered intentional. 
  • Excluding Northern Territory, the rates of drug-induced deaths in all other jurisdictions ranged between 6.3 and 9.9 per 100,000 people in 2018. There are important jurisdictional differences in drug-induced deaths in major city versus regional areas, with a higher rate of drug-induced deaths in major cities in Western Australia and South Australia and in regional areas in New South Wales and Victoria (noting fluctuations in these trends over time).
  • Opioids were the main drug cited in drug-induced deaths (1,129 deaths in 2018). Indeed, they were noted as the underlying cause of 1,088 deaths (including 876 deaths deemed accidental).
  • Natural and semi-synthetic opioids (e.g., morphine, oxycodone) have historically been the most commonly cited opioids in opioid-induced deaths. This has changed over the past two years, with the rate of opioid-induced deaths involving heroin converging with the rate of opioid-induced deaths involving natural and semi-synthetic opioids.
  • When studying accidental deaths only, heroin is now the leading opioid underlying opioid-induced deaths. There have also been increases in deaths involving synthetic opioids (e.g., fentanyl, tramadol) over the past decade, although preliminary estimates do not support a further increase in 2017 and 2018.
  • An increasing rate of deaths involving psychotropic medicines (e.g., benzodiazepines, antipsychotics) and non-opioid medicines used for treatment of certain pain conditions (e.g., pregabalin) is of concern. It is important to note that these medicines are often identified alongside other drugs (e.g., cases where opioids are the underlying cause of death and benzodiazepines are an associated cause of death). 
  • The rate of deaths attributed to amphetamines (e.g., methamphetamine, MDMA) increased substantially from 2011 to 2016; preliminary estimates do not support a further increase in 2017 and 2018. The number of cocaine-induced deaths remained relatively small (i.e., less than 20 deaths).