In Australia, many pharmaceutical drugs are readily available to prevent, treat, and cure disease. But statistics show that certain pharmaceutical drugs are commonly used for non-medical purposes, which causes considerable physical, mental, and social harms.

In this report, non-medical use is the consumption of a prescription or over-the-counter pharmaceutical drug for non-therapeutic purposes, or other than directed by a registered health-care professional.

In Australia, the non-medical use of pharmaceuticals is common

Results from the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) showed that about 1 million Australians (4.8%) aged 14 years or older misused a pharmaceutical drug (excluding non-opioid over-the-counter medicines) in the previous 12 months. In 2013, recent non-medical use of pharmaceuticals was 4.7%, having increased steadily from 3.7% in 2007.

The non-medical use of pharmaceuticals in 2016 was higher than all other illicit drugs, except cannabis (10.4%). Pharmaceuticals most commonly used for non-medical purposes were opioid analgesics and benzodiazepines. Recent non-medical use occurred more often than for most other illicit drugs, with 28% of people who misused them doing so daily or weekly.

Prescriptions for opioid analgesics continue to rise

The rate of dispensed prescriptions for opioid analgesics has been climbing—from 36,900 dispensed prescriptions per 100,000 population in 2010–11 to 45,600 in 2014–15. This amounted to a 24% rise, which was largely driven by a 60% rise in the rate of prescriptions for oxycodone (and oxycodone/naloxone)—from 9,800 per 100,000 population in 2010–11 to 15,500 in 2014–15.

Chronic pain and mental illness is higher among people who used pharmaceuticals for non-medical purposes

In 2016, people aged 18 and over who recently used pharmaceuticals for non-medical purposes were more likely than those who did not to experience mental illness (29% compared with 15.2%), chronic pain (15.9% compared with 10.3%), and high or very high levels of psychological distress (24.1% compared with 10.9%).

The presence of pharmaceuticals continues to rise for drug-induced deaths

Over the past decade, drug-induced deaths were more likely to be due to prescription drugs than illicit drugs. In 2016, there were 663 drug-induced deaths where benzodiazepines were present, and 550 where ‘other opioids’ (prescription painkillers such as oxycodone, morphine, and codeine) were present. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of deaths where either other opioids or benzodiazepines were present rose by 127% and 168%, respectively.

Treatment episodes rose for some opioids

Overall, where the principal drug of concern was a pharmaceutical, the proportion of closed treatment episodes for all opioid analgesics combined rose from 56% in 2006–07 to 73% in 2015–16.

Within the group of opioid analgesics, the proportion of closed treatment episodes rose for oxycodone (from 2.6% to 9.8%), codeine (from 5.9% to 14.1%), buprenorphine (from 4.6% to 8.6%), and other opioids (from 1.3% to 6.8%) over that time. Conversely, the proportion of closed treatment episodes for benzodiazepines steadily declined, from 27% to 16.8%.