So many people are dying from drug overdoses in B.C. that the epidemic has led to a decline in life expectancy at birth, a key measure of a population’s well-being, the provincial health officer says.
Dr. Bonnie Henry highlighted the finding in a 49-page report this past week calling for the decriminalization of simple drug possession.
“Overdose deaths in the province have become so pervasive and severe that they have been found to contribute to a measurable decrease in life expectancy at birth for British Columbians,” she writes in Stopping the Harm.
Life expectancy is an estimate of how long, on average, a person can expect to live at birth, the report says. “When life expectancy stagnates or fails to improve, it can be an early indication that there is something wrong. The health-care system could be weakening or there could be socio-economic circumstances impacting the health of the population.
“A decline in life expectancy is cause for serious concern.”
Henry told reporters that the troubling decline in life expectancy shows that the overdose crisis “is having an impact on our community across the province on the entire population, and that tells us we need to do more.”
Henry’s office and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control first flagged the issue in a report last June.
The research study found that from 2014 to 2016, life expectancy at birth in B.C. declined by 0.38 years, and that deaths from illicit-drug overdoses — mostly involving opioids — accounted for 32 per cent of the decrease.
The decline followed a period from 2001 to 2014 when life expectancy increased by three years, the study said.
Henry noted in her latest report that since her predecessor, Dr. Perry Kendall, declared a public-health emergency in 2016, more than 3,700 British Columbians have died from drug overdoses, an average of three to four a day.
Overdoses are now the leading cause of unnatural death in the province, and in 2018, there were 4.5 times more overdose deaths than deaths from motor-vehicle crashes, the report says.
It’s not the first time that health officers have highlighted the epidemic’s impact on life-expectancy measures.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, cited B.C.’s findings in a report last October, warning that “the national life expectancy of Canadians may actually be decreasing for the first time in decades, because of the opioid-overdose crisis.”
Tam said data are not available at the national level, but the Public Health Agency of Canada is analyzing the impact of the overdose crisis.
In a report in January, Henry said the decline in life expectancy is “expected to continue to worsen as the overdose crisis continues in B.C.”
Henry intends to delve into the issue again in an upcoming report that will look at overdose deaths and response efforts.