OTTAWA — Life expectancy in Canada has stopped increasing for the first time in more than 40 years, and Statistics Canada says the opioid crisis is largely to blame.
Statistics Canada released data Thursday noting that year-over-year increases ended between 2016 and 2017, stalling life expectancy at birth for women to 84 years and 79.9 for men.
After reviewing death by age and cause, the statistics agency made a firm conclusion: “the main factor that was responsible for the recent change in life expectancy in Canada, particularly in British Columbia: accidental drug overdoses among young adult men.”
Watch: B.C. coroner says 1,489 illicit overdose deaths in 2018
More than 10,300 Canadians have died from apparent opioid-related overdoses since 2016, according to Health Canada. Nearly 4,000 of those deaths were in B.C.
It was around that time, in spring 2016, when the province declared a state of emergency in response to the skyrocketing number of overdose deaths related to the use of fentanyl. For comparison, the number of accidental overdose deaths was 211 in 2010. By the end of 2017, that figure had jumped to approximately 1,450 deaths.
Fentanyl is an illicit synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor called the StatCan data “very alarming.” She told HuffPost Canada that the opioid crisis “continues to be a priority file, personally, and also for my department and the government.”
But average life expectancy isn’t the same across Canada. It actually increased in Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and Saskatchewan between 2016 and 2017. Ontario saw no change.
In B.C., however, the average life expectancy at birth fell for the second year in a row. The number of drug overdose deaths among men in that province where enough to offset life expectancy gains made in other areas.
“Life expectancy for women in Canada was also lowered by accidental drug poisonings, but generally at a slower pace than for men,” according to StatCan.
B.C.’s health officer has called on the provincial government to introduce legislation to decriminalize illicit drugs. In a 50-page report released last month, Dr. Bonnie Henry said it would allow illicit drug users to get help without fear of criminal arrest.
“This type of approach would provide pathways for police to link people to health and social services, and would support the use of administrative penalties rather than criminal charges for simple possession,” Henry’s report reads. “The province cannot wait for action at the federal level.”
The province rejected the recommendation.
The federal health minister did not give a clear answer when asked if she thinks decriminalizing illicit drugs would be an effective way to mitigate the impact of the opioid crisis. Liberal ministers have said there are no plans to do so, despite overwhelming support from the party’s grassroots to move in that direction.
“What we’ve heard is that the issue of drugs that are unsafe supply is the issue,” Petitpas Taylor told HuffPost. “So what we really need to focus on right now is safe supply of drugs.”
The federal government committed $30.5 million in its 2019 budget to fund measures to fill gaps in harm reduction and treatment.
Petitpas Taylor said the money will partly go to safe consumption sites stocked with drug-checking devices that help detect toxic levels of fentanyl in drugs bought on the street.
Safe consumption sites are effective and save lives, she said.