A deep dive into overdose death data in Alberta | CTV News

A deep dive into overdose death data in Alberta

The Alberta government encouraged optimism surrounding the current state of addiction in the province ahead of making changes to the way mental health and addiction services will be offered earlier this week.

CTV News Edmonton has done an analysis of the publicly available drug-poisoning death data to see if the numbers support the province's recent claims.

In Calgary on Tuesday, Premier Danielle Smith and Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Dan Williams unveiled two new agencies that will be used to deliver mental health and addiction services in the province.

Recovery Alberta will be tasked with delivering mental health and addiction services previously covered by Alberta Health Services and is expected to be up and running later this year.

The other is a new Crown corporation called the Canadian Centre of Recovery Excellence (CoRE).

The government says that CoRE will build recovery-oriented systems of care by researching best practices for recovery from around the world, analyzing data and making evidence-based recommendations.

In the announcement, Smith said the province was already seeing positive trends in relation to addiction as a result of the comprehensive system being built by the Alberta government.

“Over time, far fewer Albertans have lost their lives to addiction in our province, and many drugs had their lowest mortality rate on record” said Smith.

According to the premier, deaths from alcohol are down 60 per cent since 2021; deaths from methamphetamine are down 41 per cent; and deaths from cocaine are down 61 per cent. Additionally, deaths from pharmaceutical opioids are down 70 per cent since 2018 and deaths from benzodiazepines are down 33 per cent since 2017.

“While opioid addiction continues to be a significant area of focus for our government, it is important to remember addiction is much more than opioids. The vast majority of people struggling with addiction are not using opioids and in nearly every metric, we’re seeing addiction related deaths at all time lows, which is a cause for optimism,” she told reporters.

When questioned about the number of non-pharmaceutical opioid deaths, Smith admitted the province still has a problem with illicit opioids, while Dr. Nathaniel Day, CoRE’s incoming chief scientific officer, said, “While the numbers are still quite high and they’re higher than any of us want to see, the fact of the matter is that we are seeing some up and down and there are other jurisdictions that are seeing ups and ups only.”

What does the data say?

When using the Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System (ASUSS) to analyze the data, more than 1,800 Albertans died from overdose in the first 11 months of 2023. Of those deaths, 93 per cent involved opioids.

ASUSS defines pharmaceutical opioids as "typically prescribed opioids, like codeine, hydromorphone, methadone."

The data does show that deaths linked to those drugs have gone from 133 in 2018 to 40 between January and November of last year, marking a 70-per-cent decrease.

However, those 40 pharmaceutical opioid deaths comprise only two per cent of the 1,706 opioid-related deaths that occurred in 2023.

The data shows the other 98 per cent, or 1,666 deaths, were due to non-pharmaceutical, or illicit opioids, defined as "fentanyl (and analogues), heroin, designer opiate."

Last year had the highest number of non-pharmaceutical opioid deaths on record, and while deaths from pharmaceutical opioids decreased by 70 per cent between 2018 and 2023, non-pharmaceutical opioid deaths increased by 148 per cent in that same time period.

Although there have been some fluctuations in the number of opioid-related deaths in Alberta — such as higher numbers in 2021 followed by a seven per cent decrease in 2022, then a 12 per cent increase in 2023 — federal data shows it’s part of a longer trend that can be seen across Canada in provinces such as B.C., Saskatchewan and Ontario.

When looking at growth rate, B.C. is the only province in Canada whose opioid-related deaths per 100,000 people went up for four consecutive years. When comparing the provinces' rate of growth between 2022 and January-September of 2023, Alberta, B.C, Saskatchewan, Ontario and P.E.I had increases — the most substantial being Alberta by 25 per cent.

Other substances

When trying to recreate the figures provided by the Alberta government with publically available data from the dashboard, calculations by CTV News Edmonton vary slightly.

Since 2021, deaths from alcohol are down 62 per cent (not 60); deaths from methamphetamine are down 44 per cent (not 41); and deaths from cocaine are down 63 per cent (not 61).

Since 2017, deaths from benzodiazepines are down 36 per cent (not 33), and like the figures provided, deaths from pharmaceutical opioids are down 70 per cent since 2018.

Although deaths are down when compared to the year each respective drug had either the highest, or close to the highest deaths on record, the total number of drug-related deaths in Alberta has the potential to reach a record-breaking high in 2023.

With data from just the first 11 months of the year, Alberta had 1,841 drug-related deaths. That is 102 more deaths than in 2022, and 34 fewer than 2021.

Data for December 2023 has not yet been released, but the monthly average of deaths last year was 167.

According to provincial data, six Albertans died from drug-poisoning a day on average in 2023, and every four out of five deaths involved opioids.

With files from CTV Calgary’s Michael Franklin and Melissa Gilligan 


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