The Opioid Mortality Epidemic in North America: Do We Understand the Supply Side Dynamics of This Unprecedented Crisis?

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Fischer, B., Pang, M. & Jones, W. The opioid mortality epidemic in North America: do we understand the supply side dynamics of this unprecedented crisis?. Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy 15, 14 (2020). DOI: 10.1186/s13011-020-0256-8.

Date created: 
Illicit opioids
Prescription opioids
Public health
North America

While there has been extensive attention to the ‘demand side’ – or use and adverse consequences, including mortality – of the ‘opioid crisis’ presently unfolding across North America, few considerations have focused on the supply side. This paper examines the supply side dynamics of this unprecedented public health phenomenon. We provide evidence for several interrelated supply-side elements that have contributed to the present public health crisis. We observe that initially, persistently high levels of prescription opioid availability and use exposed large proportions of the North American population to opioids, resulting in correspondingly high levels of medical and non-medical use (e.g., involving diversion). While various intervention measures to control prescription opioid availability and use have been implemented in recent years, leading to eventual reductions in opioid dispensing levels, these occurred late in the crisis’s evolution. Moreover, these supply reductions have not been met by corresponding reductions in opioid use or demand levels. These growing discrepancies between opioid demand and prescription-based sources have left major gaps in opioid supplies. In response to such supply gaps, highly potent and toxic illicit opioid products have rapidly proliferated across North America, and become a core driver of the dramatic spikes in opioid overdose fatality levels in recent years. These supply-related interrelations are corroborated by a corresponding increase in illicit opioid-related fatalities, which arose just as medical opioid supplies began to decrease in many jurisdictions. Improved analyses and understanding of the supply-side dynamics of the opioid crisis are urgently needed in order to inform future intervention and policy development. Meanwhile, the high mortality toll related to illicit, highly toxic opioid exposure requires sustained solutions, including supply-oriented measures (e.g., safer opioid distribution for at–risk users) towards improved public health protection.

Document type: 
Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)