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The “Opioid Crisis”​ and Untreated Pain in Australia

Australia’s Annual Overdose Report 2022, was released by the Penington Institute on 2-9-22, coinciding with International Overdose Awareness Day. Their website [see Link above] loudly trumpets the shocking news: “America’s Opioid Epidemic is Australia’s Future, If We Don’t Act Now!” TRUE OR FALSE?   

It is crystal clear to me, from this fear-based & emotive announcement, how & why our media focus has followed the American example, & is irrationally based on sensational claims & overblown headlines. Is their claim truthful & based on accurate data? 

ANSWER: Claiming “thousands of deaths” from opioids may have some statistical relevance, but ONLY IF we also include illicit opioids, polypharmacy & other factors in the overall mix. The TRUTH is, there is another story to tell. Sadly, due to irresponsible media reporting, ignorance, or a wilful misunderstanding of the statistics, it is often implied “opioid” overdose deaths are due to pharmaceutical opioids used by chronic pain patients, which is far from the TRUTH! 

IN FACT, many responsible chronic pain patients, using their pain killers as prescribed [i.e. as part of an overall pain management plan], have been significantly disadvantaged in recent years as a direct result of “new age” theories & anti-opioid policies introduced in Australia. 

ESSENTIALLY, no thought at all has been given to the legitimate Medical use of opioids & how demonising ALL opioids negatively impacts the chronic pain patient population. 

The message the public constantly get bombarded with in our media & elsewhere is:

1.    “Opioids” are 100% addictive

2.    Thousands of people are overdosing on “opioids”

3.    “Prescription” opioid pain killers are 100% addictive

4.    Thousands of people are overdosing on “prescription” pain killers. 

ERGO, in order to supposedly reduce National “opioid” overdose deaths, our Federal Government, via the TGA, has restricted the issue of legally prescribed pharmaceutical opioids to ALL people, including chronic pain patients, since the introduction of new & “improved” Opioid Prescribing Guidelines on 1-6-20. This misdirected Policy change is NOT logical or sensible in any way. 

WHY NOT? Well, let’s look at the Penington Institute’s actual figures, & specifically as they relate to Figure 39 in the 2022 Report: “There were 856 unintentional drug-induced deaths involving opioids in 2020.” And also“The combination of opioids with a broad range of other pharmaceuticals is confirmed as 412 deaths in 2020.”

Penington Report 2022 – FIGURE 39
Data Excerpt – FIGURE 39

ANALYSING further, there were 28 deaths from “pharmaceutical opioids ONLY” in 2020 [see the last line in the Data Excerpt above]. IF ONLY 28 deaths in total, as a layman, chronic pain patient & Advocate, I cannot for the life of me understand why a figure so statistically low has resulted such a heavy-handed & ill-thought out approach from the TGA, to the point where there have been many negative consequences for pain patients. 

It is now plain to see that chronic pain patients, who largely use their legally prescribed opioids responsibly & safely, have become casualties, or collateral damage, in the misunderstood “War Against Drugs.” 

WHY is no mention is ever made in the media [or elsewhere] of how many people actually overdose on prescription opioids ALONE? It’s an important distinction to be made, or question to ask, because many chronic pain patients in recent times have been abandoned & irreparably harmed, on the back of biased assumptions & irresponsible media reporting. 

HOW IS THIS SO? Thousands of chronic pain patients around the country have been needlessly force-tapered, or completely removed from their long-term & stable pharmaceutical opioid therapy, all due to the statistics being ignored & misinterpreted, OR worse still, reported selectively & incorrectly in the media. 

For example, the general public always see pictures of pill bottles on the news & assume the falsely named “opioid” crisis is entirely due to irresponsible pain patients, abusing their medication to get high etc. As I said above, this is media “sensationalism.” The real truth is hidden away in the Penington Report’s statistics & graphs, if one is prepared to be objective, clear-headed AND take the time to carefully understand facts as they really are. 

FURTHER INFO: The issue has been retrospectively highlighted by Pain Australia & other Peak Pain Advocacy Bodies in media releases:

TO CONCLUDE: How do we stop this blatant & uninformed bias, whether intentional or not, from occurring in the media? There is no doubt in my mind that many Medical Authorities, at ALL Government levels, have swallowed the false narrative presented. Otherwise, chronic pain patients in Australia would not have been punished so severely, i.e. by losing their life-saving & mobility-restoring pain killers…all for a “crisis” they most certainly did NOT cause.

Kevin R James
Author: Kevin R James

Chronic Pan Patient Advocate and Writer. Medically Retired RN [B.Nurs.]


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