Skip to main content

Like heroin, opioids can cause some people to feel intense pleasure or euphoria. Even if people don’t feel “high” on opioids, their bodies can quickly become dependent on them.Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press

The federal government announced Friday plans to create a national system for monitoring the scope of prescription drug abuse in Canada.

Health Minister Rona Ambrose said the government will give the Canadian Institute for Health Information nearly $4.3-million over five years to develop a co-ordinated national monitoring and surveillance program.

"We need better data to deal with this issue in an appropriate way," Ms. Ambrose said.

The move comes as Canada continues to struggle with growing rates of prescription drug misuse and addiction. Opioids, which are powerful narcotic painkillers such as fentanyl, oxycodone and morphine, are among the most commonly abused prescription drugs. Reports show that Canada has the second highest rate of prescription opioid consumption in the world and estimates suggest more than 1,000 Canadians die each year after taking the drugs.

Like heroin, opioids can cause some people to feel intense pleasure or euphoria. Even if people don't feel "high" on opioids, their bodies can quickly become dependent on them. Tolerance to the drug can develop quickly, necessitating ever-greater doses, which can depress the respiratory system, and increase the risk of death.

Several provinces, including Ontario and Nova Scotia, have created prescription monitoring programs, which typically target individuals who visit multiple doctors or pharmacies to get more opioids. The funding will help CIHI work with provinces to enhance data collection and analysis and create a national report on surveillance.

But such programs don't address the root of the problem, which is how so many people get prescriptions for highly addictive narcotic drugs used to treat chronic pain. Opioids were once given only to patients in severe pain, such as those dying of cancer or recovering from surgery. When OxyContin – a slow-release pill that could deliver painkilling ingredients over the course of a day rather than just a few hours – came on the market in the mid-1990s, the accompanying promotional campaigns convinced many doctors it was a good option for chronic pain.

Two decades later, opioids are still seen as a go-to for chronic pain, even though mounting evidence questions their effectiveness. A U.S. National Institutes of Health panel issued a report in January saying there have been no long-term studies proving the effectiveness of opioids to treat chronic pain and called for more research.

Ms. Ambrose was in Hamilton attending the Prescribing Practices Forum, a meeting of regulators, physicians and government policy-makers to tackle the problem of prescription drug abuse.

At the meeting, the minister announced funding for other projects, including an update to national opioid prescribing guidelines and an educational program for physicians, pharmacists and nurse practitioners.

Ms. Ambrose's office also corrected a news report that suggested the federal government is about to halt the sale of generic oxycodone. A spokesman for the minister said there are no plans to reverse its decision to allow the sale of generic versions of oxycodone.