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Life expectancy in Canada has stopped increasing for the first time in more than four decades, due largely to soaring overdose deaths in the Western provinces.

In British Columbia, the province hit hardest by these deaths, life expectancy fell for a second year in a row, decreasing by 0.3 years for men and 0.1 years for women from 2016 to 2017, according to Statistics Canada.

In Alberta, the life expectancy for men fell by 0.24 years, and for women 0.1 years, over the same period.

“It is tragic and unacceptable, but not entirely surprising,” said Thomas Kerr, a professor in the department of medicine at the University of British Columbia and a senior scientist at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use.

“It just reinforces that we need to do more, that governments need to do more, and we have to be very weary of the public having overdose fatigue and slowly becoming too accustomed to this problem as a new normal,” Dr. Kerr said.

Life expectancy, the statistical measure of how many years a person can expect to live, is a widely used indicator of a population’s health. Global life expectancy has increased steadily over the past two centuries owing in part to improved sanitation and nutrition, the decline of child mortality, vaccines and antibiotics, and other medical advancements.

According to the new Statistics Canada figures, life expectancy increased in Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and Nunavut, while there was no change in Ontario. Older men across Canada are living longer, but these gains are being offset by more deaths among younger men.

The life expectancy for the average Canadian is 82 years – 84 for women and 80 for men. More than 10,300 people died of apparent opioid-related deaths across Canada between January, 2016, and September, 2018.

That the overdose crisis could halt Canada’s upward life expectancy trend when other unnatural deaths did not – motor vehicle accidents, suicides, murders – speaks to the sheer size of the problem, Dr. Kerr said.

In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the hardest-hit neighbourhood in the country, life expectancy for men dropped by four years to 69.6 from 73.5 in the period from 2010-12 to 2016-17, according to Vancouver Coastal Health.

The United States has recorded three consecutive years of declining life expectancy, due largely to drug overdoses and suicides. The life expectancy for the average resident is 78.6 years.

Gillian Kolla is a PhD candidate in public health at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and a co-ordinator for the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, whose work focuses on reducing barriers to health care access for marginalized populations.

She says the latest figures underscore the fact that the overdoses are a public health crisis and that governments must respond as such.

The criminalization of people who use drugs poses a significant barrier to accessing health and social services, she said, which has a direct impact on health outcomes. “Decriminalization would be a very large-scale policy response that we could implement that would have a strong impact on the stigma that people who use drugs face.”

Another major policy solution would be to regulate a safer supply of drugs to address the issue of the fentanyl-contaminated illicit drug supply, Ms. Kolla said. “In any other large-scale contamination crisis, you would see people move from a supply that is contaminated to a supply that is safer. For example, we had a large response to lettuce contaminated by E. coli over Christmas last year,” she said.

“But we’re not seeing the same response to the fentanyl crisis – again, partly because we’re dealing with an illicit drug and the stigma that surrounds its use.”

Dr. Kerr said he is hopeful that the public will continue to demand innovation in this area and that policy-makers will do the right thing despite political risk. “To continue to accept the rate of death that’s occurring now is, I think, immoral, and people will look back on us and judge us harshly for our inaction," he said.

Said Ms. Kolla: “Right now, we’re in a situation where we’re very much playing politics with people’s lives, and people are dying by the thousands because of it.”

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