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Canada's poorest residents more vulnerable to opioid-related harm, study finds

A new study has revealed a connection between a Canadian's socio-economic status and their susceptibility to opioid-related harm. Simultaneously, a landmark settlement has been reached to recover health-care costs related to opioid use.
A new study has found a connection between a Canadian's socio-economic status and their risk of opioid-related death.

A Canadian’s socio-economic status could make them more susceptible to opioid-related visits to the emergency room, hospitalizations and death.

A new study by the University of Waterloo found that between 2000 and 2017, low-income Canadians were almost four times more likely to die of opioid-related causes than high-income Canadians.

This is the first piece of research to prove this connection at a national level and to do so with data spanning almost two decades. 

According to the study, the findings come at a critical time in Canada. 

On the same day the report was released, the largest settlement of a governmental health claim was reached with opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma Canada to recover health-care costs related to opioid-based pain medication sales.

"Opioid-related harms are at a crisis level in Canada," Wasem Alsabbagh, Waterloo professor and lead author of the study, said in a press release.

Opioid-related hospitalizations rose more than 50 per cent between 2007 and 2017, the study states.

More recent numbers from Statistics Canada indicate this number remains high. In 2021, there were approximately 17 hospitalizations per day due to opioid-related poisoning. For comparison, there were 14 hospitalizations per day in 2017.

Additionally, 88 per cent of the hospitalizations in 2021 occurred in British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario. 

To prove that lower-income areas consistently carry the burden of Canada’s opioid-related harm, the researchers sourced information from Statistics Canada and tracked postal codes associated with reported opioid-related incidents.

While the gap between rich and poor Canadians has narrowed since 2000, it still remained high in 2017 with low-income Canadians being 2.5 times more likely to die of opioid use.

"Often, we see low socio-economic status in concentrated geographic areas where there is poorer access to resources,” Alsabbagh said.

“In addition, psycho-social factors, such as feeling marginalized or enduring discrimination and social isolation, can have an effect.” 

To close the gap, the study recommends that the makers of targeted health policies consider the psycho-social aspects of socio-economic status. For example, implementing opioid stewardship and ensuring new policies are created with an emphasis on equity.

“By drawing the link between low socio-economic status and opioid harm, we can design policies that more appropriately serve the needs of our communities,” Alsabbagh said.