As the number of deaths from toxic illicit street drugs in British Columbia continues to rise, the latest statistics show that five people per day are now dying from drug-related overdoses in the province.
Recently, Island Health has launched a new campaign to prevent deaths due to illicit drug overdose among men working in trades and transport. The targeted 8-week awareness campaign is also aimed to “deconstruct the silence and shame around men using drugs.”
Currently, men account for 80% of the fatal overdoses in 2021, with 86% taking place indoors, and 56% in private homes, according to data released by the latest BC Coroners Service report.
In 2020, 263 people died from toxic illicit drugs, of which 225 were men and 126 of them occurred in private residences in the Island Health region.
“We know that among those who die from toxic drug poisoning, men who use alone are at greatest risk,” said Dr. Richard Stanwick, the chief medical health officer of Island Health. “We want them to know their lives matter and there are supports and treatments to help keep them alive.”
According to Island Health medical health officer Dr. Sandra Allison, the awareness campaign is specifically aimed at men working in the construction and transportation industries, who account for a significant number of the toxic drug fatalities.
Data from coroners’ investigations collected in 2018 shows that half the men who died from toxic drugs were employed, while 55% of them worked in the trades and transport industry. Moreover, Dr. Allison has pointed out that many men who work in trades or have exited from them may suffer from work injuries that make them reliant on pain medication. “Unfortunately, at times, they may seek that substance or a similar substance through illicit pathways,” she said.
Furthermore, the 2018 data shows that 79% of individuals who died from toxic drugs had contact with the medical system in the year prior to their death, with over half reporting pain problems or mental health issues.
The campaign will point men to local overdose prevention sites (OPS) or drug testing or harm reduction services. Another aim of the awareness campaign is to “normalize conversations around drug use, how to stay safe and shift the stigma around the issue making it OK to seek help,” Dr. Allison said.
The LifeGuard app and the National Overdose Response Service hotline are effective tools to prevent overdose in individuals who use drugs alone, and can call for medical help if needed.
Island Health has also partnered with the Vancouver Island Construction Association (VICA) to reduce the number of illicit drug deaths in the trades while improving workers’ access to harm reduction or treatment supports. Currently, the Tailgate Toolkit Project is developing resources and initiatives for employers and workers to address stigma and provide people in the industry with the help and direction they need, said Rory Kulmala, the CEO of VICA.