The ‘extra-medical’ use of opioids is costing Australia around $15.7 billion and causing more than 2200 deaths a year. ‘Extra-medical’ opioid use includes the illegal use of heroin and the misuse of pharmaceutical opioids (use ‘not as prescribed’).

Released today, the new national estimate on the social and economic costs of opioid use to Australia shows that, in the 2015-2016 financial year, ‘extra-medical’ opioid use was responsible for: $5.6 billion in direct tangible costs, including healthcare costs, reduced productivity and worker absence, crime, and road traffic accidents; and $10.1 billion in intangible costs, due to the premature death of 2,203 people and over 70,000 years of life lost.

Published by the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) at Curtin University in Perth, the new research is the first national update on the cost of opioids in 13 years. The cost is substantially higher than the 2007 estimate of $4.75 billion, with the inclusion of intangible costs accounting for much of the difference.

The national research team was led by NDRI and included experts from the South Australian Centre for Economic Studies at University of Adelaide; the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW; the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University; and the Centre for Youth Substance Abuse Research, University of Queensland.

NDRI’s Professor Steve Allsop said an estimated 645,000 Australians had engaged in ‘extra-medical’ use of opioids in the 12-month period covered by the research.

“Extra-medical use of opioids is likely to result in adverse outcomes that require the use of health services, reduce work productivity, or result in contact with the criminal justice system,” he said.

“The rate of opioid-related deaths has increased over the past two decades. With most deaths occurring in early to mid-life, that represents a huge cost to Australian society. This cost underlines the importance of the recent investments in strategies to address this growing problem, including investment in a national overdose strategy and real-time monitoring systems.”

NDARC’s Professor Louisa Degenhardt explained that since the peak of the ‘heroin crisis’ in the late 1990s, the types of opioids being used had changed. “It is concerning that people are being prescribed opioid medications for chronic pain when there is little evidence that opioids are effective for these conditions” she said.

“Improving access to opioid treatment programs as well as overdose prevention medications could help reduce the cost of extra-medical opioid use in Australia,” she said.

The research report, Quantifying the Social Costs of Pharmaceutical Opioid Misuse and Illicit Opioid Use to Australia in 2015/16, and an infographic snapshot of key findings, are available at This is the third report in a series on the social and economic costs of substance use in Australia; the first report focussed on methamphetamine and the second on tobacco.