MORE Australians are dying from accidental opioid overdoses each year, with prescription painkillers rather than heroin now accounting for two-thirds of the fatalities, latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows.
An analysis of finalised ABS data by researchers at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre found 68 per cent of the 668 overdose deaths in 2013 were related to pharmaceutical opioids – a far cry from the heroin epidemic of the 1990s when the majority of opioid deaths were caused by illicit drugs.
The death rate has more than doubled among addicts aged between 35 and 44 since 2007. The death toll is expected to rise.
"We expect further increases once the deaths data for 2014 and 2015 are finalised," said lead author Amanda Roxburgh.
"We're seeing a real shift from illicit to pharmaceutical opioids implicated in these deaths, affecting a broader range of people who want to manage their pain."
Opioids – powerful painkillers that act on the nervous system – were traditionally used by cancer patients in hospitals, but over the past couple of decades, have become mainstream.
In many cases, a person will leave hospital with instructions to take two tablets a day for a couple of weeks. But in a few months, hooked, they could start shovelling up to 90 tablets into their mouths a day.
"There's good research showing there's been a four-fold increase in the prescribing of these drugs between 1990 and 2014, particularly for Oxycontin, Tramadol and Fentanyl," said Ms Roxburgh.
"I think doctors need to prescribe for a shorter time and have the patient come in again for a review before they prescribe more."
Bee Mohamed, chief executive of ScriptWise, a non-profit group aiming to reduce prescription medication misuse, said overprescription, lack of awareness about the risks, and lack of government action, were behind the rising death toll.
"The politicians have seen the statistics and state coroners have flagged these numbers but for some reason they keep diverting funding and resources to illicit drugs ... when that's really not the real issue," she said.
"This problem should've been addressed five years ago to stop the numbers from going up."
She said an addict could swallow dozens of tablets a day for months or even decades, building up their tolerance.
She said many gave up their attempts to fight their addiction because they mistakenly thought the withdrawal symptoms were the very pain they were trying to mask.
According to the ABS figures, the largest proportion of deaths occurred among the 35- to 44-year age group (40 per cent), followed by the 25 to 34 and 45 to 54 year age groups (both 27 per cent), and the 15 to 24 year age group (6 per cent). This does not include Australians aged 55 and over.
Ms Mohamed said it was hard to pinpoint the main reason why the death rate was higher among 35- to 44-year-olds.
"In that age group we're seeing different scenarios. One guy who died after 12 months, he had a workplace accident and broke his back and that's how he started taking the painkillers," she said.
"If they have a headache or get a wisdom tooth out they could take codeine tablets, or if they have anxiety, benzodiazepines, and all these factors somehow mean this group is at risk, because I think their mentality is; 'What's the quickest thing I can do to get back to work and carry on with my life?'"
Ms Roxburgh, from the University of NSW, said the patchwork of inconsistent legislation meant there was an urgent need for a national clinical guideline or an agreement among the states and territories on national measures such as a real-time monitoring program.
"We also need to invest in pain programs that don't involve long-term medication, such as ones that are behaviourally and pyschologically based," she said.