Opioid-induced deaths in 2018. Source: ABS Causes of Death report.
Opioid-induced deaths in 2018. Source: ABS Causes of Death report.

The substance killing middle-aged Aussie men

More than three people a day died in Australia last year from the use of opioids mainly from the use of legal painkillers such as OxyContin.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics' Causes of Death report released today shows more than half of the drug-induced deaths in 2018 were linked to opioid drugs.

The majority of these deaths were unintentional overdoses in middle aged males and more than 70 per cent were related to the use of pharmaceutical opioids such as codeine, oxycodone, morphine, fentanyl, tramadol, pethidine and tapentadol.

The ABS data showed opioids were a factor in 1123 of the 1740 drug-induced deaths in 2018.

"Of these deaths, the most common were accidental overdoses among middle-aged males," ABS director of health and vital statistics James Eynstone-Hinkins said.

The report emerges as OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy this month as it struggled to defend itself against 2600 lawsuits from government and entities.

Since OxyContin was introduced in 1999, addictions and overdoses in the US have surged and it's been estimated that opioids have killed about 400,000 Americans. Purdue Pharma has become a target of legal action after being accused of aggressively marketing the drug and persuading doctors that it was safe.


The maker of OxyContin has filed for bankruptcy. Picture: Toby Talbot/AP
The maker of OxyContin has filed for bankruptcy. Picture: Toby Talbot/AP


As the risks have become known, the deaths linked to prescription opioids have fallen in the US.

This trend can also be seen in Australia, where the rate of opioid-linked deaths fell to a per capita rate of 4.6 per 100,000 people, lower than in 2016 when Australia recorded its highest number of drug-induced deaths (5.2 per 100,000 people) since the 1990s.

The decrease in the last two years is mostly due to a fall in deaths from natural opioids, which include morphine and codeine; and semi-synthetic opioids like the drug OxyContin.

However, there has been a significant increase in the number of deaths linked to the use of heroin in the last five years, with 438 deaths linked to the illegal drug in 2018, the highest number since 2000.



Overall 158,493 people died in Australia in 2018, which was a lower number than in 2017. The rate of deaths also dropped.

Heart disease remained the leading cause of death in 2018, although this decreased by 22.4 per cent since 2009.

Dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, remains the second most common cause of death and numbers have increased by 68.6 per cent since 2009.

Mr Eynstone-Hinkins said there used to be a gap of 14,000 deaths between those who died from heart disease compared to those who died from dementia. This has now narrowed to just 3500 deaths.

Stroke, lung cancer and lower respiratory diseases were the next most common causes of death. In total the top five made up one-third of all registered deaths.

Cancers still made up more than 30 per cent of all deaths in 2018.

Lung cancer was the leading disease, while prostate cancer was ranked sixth for males, killing 3264 men; and breast cancer was sixth for females, killing 2999 women.

Suicide was the leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 44 years of age. It was the 14th leading cause of death, occurring at a rate of 12.1 deaths per 100,000 people in 2018. It also accounted for the highest number of years of life lost.

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However, more people died from influenza and pneumonia than suicide last year and it was the 12th leading cause of death.

There has been a steady increase in those dying from the flu since 2009, when only 1790 died and it was ranked as the 17th leading cause of death. In 2018 this jumped to 3102 people.

But the ABS noted that the number of flu deaths can be changeable as it is strongly linked to the severity of flu seasons.


More than 3000 people died from the flu in 2018.
More than 3000 people died from the flu in 2018.

If you or someone you know needs support with their mental health, please contact Lifeline 24/7 on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78.