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Recently released data show that 2022 was the first year overdoses overtook other causes of death among young people aged 10 to 18. Paramedics debrief after responding to a drug overdose in Vancouver on June 23, 2021.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Fatal overdoses from opioids and other illicit drugs are now the leading cause of death for youth aged 10 to 18 in British Columbia, a development that underscores the urgency of the province’s toxic drug crisis.

Data released recently by the BC Centre for Disease Control show that 2022 was the first year overdoses overtook other causes of death among this age group, after two years as the second-most-common cause. The vast majority of drug-related deaths among young people involved fentanyl, a highly potent opioid that is often added to other street drugs without users’ knowledge. Tiny amounts of it can be fatal.

Illicit drugs have been the leading cause of death among people aged 19 to 39 in B.C. since 2016, when the province declared opioid overdoses a public-health emergency. That same year, illicit drugs became the second-most-common cause of death among people aged 40 to 59.

Last year, illicit drug toxicity also became the leading cause of death among 40-to-59-year-olds, marking the first time the substances were the leading cause in all three age groups. More than 12,260 people have died in the province as a result of toxic drugs since the public-health emergency was declared, the centre said in a June news release.

Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said in a statement that the government has more work to do in order to address the continuing crisis.

“The toxic drug crisis continues to have a devastating impact on families and communities in B.C., and the impact on children, youth is heartbreaking,” Ms. Whiteside said. “Since the onset of the pandemic and the disruption it had caused, illicit drugs are becoming more toxic and more people are at risk of dying.”

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The next most common causes of death among youth in 2022 were accidents and suicide, according to the data. The centre did not release the number of youth who died of overdoses last year. But in a report published earlier this year, the BC Coroners Service reported that 142 people under 19 had died as a result of toxic drugs from Jan. 1, 2017, to Dec. 31, 2022.

Of those who died, 54 per cent were male and 62 per cent were between 17 and 18. Victoria, Vancouver and Surrey had the highest numbers of deaths, with more than 70 per cent occurring at private residences. More than half of those who died were using drugs alone at the time, and about three-quarters were receiving services from the Ministry of Children and Family Development, or had in the past.

Fentanyl was detected in nearly 80 per cent of toxic drug deaths in young people, according to the report.

Matthew Carwana, a pediatrician and University of British Columbia researcher who studies substance use disorders in young people, said the numbers represent the most severe outcomes. The true number of young people who are struggling with addiction is likely much higher, he said.

Many young people start experimenting with drugs in their teen years, Dr. Carwana said. The rise in overdoses in this age group, he added, is a reflection of how dangerous the drug supply has become, and demonstrates why much more needs to be done to help at-risk youth.

“All of these losses are due to societal gaps,” he said.

Eugenia Oviedo-Joekes, the Canada Research Chair in person-centred care in addiction and public health at the University of British Columbia, said the rise in childhood and teen drug deaths is like a “punch in the stomach.”

“It is a total disaster,” she said. “We really, really need to make a radical change in how we deal with the problem of substances in British Columbia.”

In her statement, Ms. Whiteside said the province has taken several steps to curb the problem, including expanding youth addiction care and substance use programs, but that more work needs to be done.

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Dr. Carwana said data indicate that opioid overdoses are more common among young people in B.C. than elsewhere in the country, while sedative and stimulant overdoses are more common in eastern parts of Canada.

The rise in youth overdose deaths prompted Dr. Carwana to conduct a national survey last year, to gain a better understanding of how common overdoses are in people aged 18 and younger. The results were released Wednesday in the Canadian Paediatric Society Surveillance Program annual report.

Of the 934 respondents who reported providing care to children or youth, 128, or 14 per cent, said they had cared for at least one patient aged 12 to 18 experiencing a serious or life-threatening overdose in the previous two years. More than 80 per cent of overdoses in that age group occurred in cities, the survey found, although cases were also reported in suburban, rural and remote settings.

There were nearly 600 severe or life-threatening overdoses reported among young people by the doctors who said they had treated at least one of them in the previous two years.

Dr. Oviedo-Joekes said that for too long the response to drug use has been punishment, which keeps young people from accessing the help they need.

“These are the people we are supposed to protect at any cost,” she said. “If we continue with this stigmatizing, punishing drug environment, they will not open up and they will continue dying.”

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