From Iceland — The Icelandic Opioid Crisis: Iceland Approaching U.S. Numbers In Drug-Related Deaths

The Icelandic Opioid Crisis: Iceland Approaching U.S. Numbers In Drug-Related Deaths

Published August 27, 2018

Noemi Ehrat
Photo by
Art Bicnick

In the first half of 2018, 29 recorded deaths in Iceland were likely to be related to drug overdoses. This is a heavy increase compared to last year’s numbers, when 32 people died due to illicit substance consumption over the entire year. Ólafur B. Einarsson from the Directorate Of Health believes there is a potential drug crisis developing in the country.

Rise of drug-related deaths

“There have been 29 deaths that are probably related to drugs from January to the middle of June this year,” Ólafur says, “but it remains to be confirmed whether they are all directly linked to drugs.” By this, he means that substances like amphetamine and cocaine have all been found in samples from the deceased, though it is unclear if that was the exact reason for their death. “There have already been five cases where cocaine was found, which is a lot,” Ólafur adds.

The most pressing issue, however, is the abuse of prescription drugs. “Compared to other Nordic countries, Iceland has a 30% higher consumption rate of nervous system medication like oxycodone,” Ólafur says. This statistic spurred the Directorate Of Health to start an online prescription database in 2016 for physicians to prevent people from receiving multiple prescriptions for medication from different doctors. Similar programs have been implemented in other Western countries.

Young users

There is another more dangerous trend present, though. “This year, we discovered that more young people consumed a mix of strong opioid analgesics and cannabis or alcohol,” Ólafur says. Opioids are incredibly addictive and easy to overdose on. In Iceland, they are consumed in pill form and also smoked from Fentanyl patches, which is considered to be many times more potent than heroin.

The demographic of drug users have also shifted. “The average age of drug-related deaths has been sinking from 50.8 years in 2015 to 45.9 years this year,” he says. The largest at-risk group is young men, as 79% of this year’s deceased are male. “My guess for the reason behind this is the current music culture, especially regarding hip-hop lyrics,” Ólafur explains.

 “If the numbers will continue to rise this year, we will in fact be very close to the figures of the United States, proportionally speaking” 

For Ólafur, a first step out of the crisis would be for young kids to know how to able to have fun without resorting to taking pills. “They have to understand that one pill of a certain type can kill them,” he says. However, there hasn’t been much of a discussion about this. “We intend to inform people more about the dangers,” Ólafur says. Apparently, there is currently not much education surrounding drug-abuse in Icelandic schools.

State of crisis

“In my opinion, the current situation is a crisis and if the numbers will continue to rise this year, we will in fact be very close to the figures of the United States, proportionally speaking,” Ólafur says. While there has been roughly one drug-related death per 10,000 people in Iceland last year, the U.S. has had to face one death per 4,500 people.

2008 saw the peak in drug-related deaths in Iceland, with 34 people dying from overdoses, yet the number of deaths in the first half of 2018 indicate that record will soon be surpassed. Ólafur warns that, “people make the common mistake to think prescribed drugs are safe for recreational use, which they are not.” He’s especially worried about the youth. “It looks like these kids really don’t know how dangerous the pills they have in their hands are and how dangerous they can be when they are mixed with other stuff. You can’t predict how strong they are when you consume them with alcohol, you can’t be sure what’s in them or how they work with other stuff. In my opinion, we have to do more to warn about the dangers,” he adds.

Mental health

Ólafur points out that there is also an unusually high number of people who consume antidepressants in Iceland. The country has the highest antidepressant consumption rate of any OECD nation.

Moreover, of those who had died due to drug-overdoses, people over 60 often had antidepressants mixed with alcohol in their system. “Part of the problem is that there is not much else available other than medicine for people with mental health issues,” Ólafur explains. According to him, it has been a work in progress to increase other services, such as therapy.

Failing health care system

“Overall, there’s a lot more going on than drug-related deaths,” Ólafur says. “This is the darkest part of the whole picture and there are hundreds of people who are admitted to the hospitals every year due to drug overuse. There have been questions about the healthcare system and how to improve it for several years now.”

It remains to be seen whether this year’s numbers of drug related deaths will exceed those of 2008.

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