Focus on evidence-based efforts needed to save lives

published on February 7, 2019

VICTORIA – The number of British Columbians dying from illicit drug overdoses plateaued in 2018, despite significant efforts from groups around the province to prevent deaths.

The BC Coroners Service reports there were 1,489 suspected illicit drug overdose deaths in 2018, just over the total of overdose deaths seen in 2017. It is likely the number of these deaths for 2018 will increase as investigations conclude.

“Families and communities across the province are losing friends, neighbours and loved ones to illicit overdoses at an alarming rate. The illicit drug supply is unpredictable and unmanageable, and fentanyl is now implicated in 86% of overdose deaths,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner, BC Coroners Service. “The almost 1,500 deaths in B.C. in 2018 due to illicit drug overdoses far outweigh the numbers of people dying from motor vehicle incidents, homicides and suicides combined. Innovative and evidence-based approaches are necessary if we want to effect meaningful change and stop the dying. We need to be prepared to do things differently to save lives.”

A continuing trend highlighted in the report is that middle-aged men are overrepresented, with 80% of suspected overdose deaths involving males and 71% involving people aged 30 to 59. Also, 86% of deaths continue to occur indoors, with more people dying on the days immediately following the issuance of income assistance payments than all other days in the year.

“As this emergency continues, we need options to provide people at risk of overdose with lowbarrier access to a regulated supply of opioids, and we need to connect people who use drugs with the supports they need rather than sending them to the criminal justice system,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer. “If we’re going to turn the corner on this complex crisis, we need to find the ways to provide safer alternatives to the unregulated and highly-toxic drug supply and to end the stigma associated with criminalization of people who use drugs.”

Dr. Evan Wood, executive director with the BC Centre on Substance Use, recommends a number of upstream solutions, including improved addiction training to support prevention and treatment. He also points to the need for policy changes to end prohibition, which creates the circumstances for the fentanyl market and continues to stigmatize substance use.

“This latest report confirms what those on the frontline already know all too well: this crisis is not slowing down,” said Wood. “If we’re going to stop overdoses from happening, we urgently need to end the harms caused by prohibition while also implementing upstream responses that address the serious health and social consequences of untreated addiction.”

“Thousands upon thousands of family members are grieving today because of the preventable Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General BC Coroners Service deaths of their children,” said Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm. “We have made some progress by implementing harm reduction measures. Many more people would be dead if not for supervised consumption sites and naloxone. But it is time to step up and stop the deaths by implementing the evidence-based solutions. This requires the political will, funding and a courageous change in direction. We already have the knowledge to end the biggest health crisis this country has ever seen.”

Quick Facts:
• There was at least one illicit drug overdose death in 354 of the 365 days of 2018.
• The three townships with the highest number of illicit drug overdose deaths in 2018 were Vancouver (382), Surrey (210) and Victoria (94).
• Kelowna saw a decrease from 75 overdose deaths in 2017 to 55 in 2018, while Prince George (24 in 2017 and 46 in 2018), Kamloops (38 in 2017 and 48 in 2018) and Chilliwack (22 in 2017 and 35 in 2018) saw increases in the year.
• Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health reported the highest number of illicit drug overdose deaths (501 and 434 respectively), while Vancouver Coastal Health and Northern Health reported the highest rate of overdose deaths (36 per 100,000 individuals and 31 per 100,000 individuals respectively).
• There were no deaths at supervised consumption or overdose prevention sites.

Learn More:
Read the latest report on Illicit Drug Overdose Deaths in B.C. (2008-2018):

Read the latest report on Fentanyl-Detected Illicit Drug Overdose Deaths (2012-2018):

Expanded analysis, first published in September, 2018, titled Illicit Drug Overdose Deaths in B.C.: Findings of Coroner’s Investigations:

Based on a partnership between the Coroners Service and Statistics Canada, the City of Surrey, Surrey Fire Service, Surrey RCMP, the Fraser Health Authority, the BC Centre for Disease Control, B.C. Ministry of Health and Public Safety Canada, expanded analysis revealed additional trends. View the expanded data analysis at:

Stop Overdose BC:

BC Centre on Substance Use:

Moms Stop the Harm: