Toronto

Oshawa mayor concerned by study finding possible link between U.S. auto plant closures, opioid deaths

Oshawa's mayor says he's concerned about the results of a new study that has found a link between auto assembly plant closures and increases in opioid overdose deaths in U.S. communities.

GM ended production at its Oshawa plant last year

A view of the General Motors bridge at the Oshawa assembly plant on the final day of production on Dec. 18, 2019. A new study has found a link between an increase in opioid overdose deaths and automotive assembly plant closures in the U.S. and that study concerns Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

Oshawa's mayor says he's concerned about the results of a new study that has found a link between auto assembly plant closures and increases in opioid overdose deaths in U.S. communities.

But in an interview Friday with CBC Radio's Metro Morning, Dan Carter said a relatively new pilot project in the city, called Welcoming Streets, will help officials monitor the impact of the end of vehicle production at the Oshawa Assembly Plant. About 2,500 jobs were lost when the last vehicle rolled off the General Motors (GM) assembly line in December.

Carter said the city, with the help of GM, Unifor and the Ontario government, has implemented programs to help workers find new jobs but acknowledged the upheaval takes a personal toll on former auto workers.

"We have to do more," Carter said on Friday. "If you are suffering with mental health or addiction, if you are suffering through this transitional period, it is my job to make sure that I advocate and do everything possible to be able to help you through this period of time."

The mayor, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict himself, added he has not yet seen a sharp rise in the number of opioid overdose deaths in Oshawa since production ended.

But former GM workers need to know they are not "walking alone," Carter said.

"Because of my commitment and my past, I am absolutely committed to helping these people through this period of time."

Study found deaths increased 5 years after closures

The study, published in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine and co-authored in part by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, found that the number of opioid overdose deaths in counties where there had been an auto plant closure within five years was roughly 85 per cent higher among adults of working age than in counties where there had not been a closure.

Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter says: 'If you are suffering with mental health or addiction, if you are suffering through this transitional period, it is my job to make sure that I advocate and do everything possible to be able to help you through this period of time.' (Submitted by Dan Carter)

"From 1999 to 2016, automotive plant closures associated with increases in opioid overdose mortality. These findings highlight the potential importance of eroding economic opportunity as a factor in the U.S. opioid overdose crisis," the study reads.

Despite the findings, the researchers said they cannot conclusively state that automotive plant closures cause an increase in opioid overdose deaths, but they said there are no other explanations.

Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter views rise in opioid overdose deaths after car plant closures in US cities as ominous indicator. 9:14

Carter said the findings illustrate that there is a "health epidemic" involving opioids and he believes the problem in Canada requires a national strategy from the federal government.

"When you have these type of pressures on individuals, they seek relief in regards to what they are facing. I can speak from my own personal experience. When pressures are extraordinary, sometimes you reach out and utilize something that is easing the pain, and in some circumstances, that could be alcohol or drugs," Carter said.

'From 1999 to 2016, automotive plant closures associated with increases in opioid overdose mortality. These findings highlight the potential importance of eroding economic opportunity as a factor in the U.S. opioid overdose crisis,' the study reads. (Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)

"I am concerned about the impact that this recent announcement and recent action has had in our community, but I think this is a national conversation we've got to have," he said. 

Carter said it is still "early days" since the end of vehicle production in Oshawa, but said Welcoming Streets, which provides the city with a outreach worker and addiction specialist who will work with vulnerable and homeless people downtown to access services, will provide "real time data" that the city can use. The pilot project was launched in November and will run until March.

Opioid use has risen in Oshawa in past 4 years

Oshawa has seen a steady increase in the use of opioids in the past four years and officials are trying to understand who is using opioids, which age groups are involved, where the drug use is taking place, and what kind of drugs are being used.

Carter said he struggled with addiction for years. In his late 20s, he was homeless in Toronto, but in 1991, he entered a rehab program and began his recovery. "I'll tell you, it was one heck of a struggle," he said.

'Diminishing economic opportunities are associated with opioid overdose deaths,' the researchers say. Dr. Atheendar Venkataramani, the study's lead author, and a team of researchers spent about a year combing through a list of all the automotive plants that were in operation in the U.S. between 1999 and 2016, and comparing plant closure numbers to opioid overdose deaths. (Submitted by Dr. Atheendar Venkataramani)

A health care official in Durham region says the end of vehicle production in Oshawa may not lead to a rise in opioid overdose deaths.

Oshawa has diverse economy

Paul McGary, director of mental health and addictions at Lakeridge Health in Oshawa, said he is not convinced the report is relevant for Oshawa because it is based on information that is 10 years old, it is not a Canadian study, and research was conducted before opioid overdose deaths were considered a public health crisis in North America.

A view of the Oshawa Assembly plant through a chain link fence. (Farrah Merali/CBC)

McGary added, in some of the U.S. counties studied, the entire community was "very dependent" on the automotive industry.

"If we look at our Ontario and Oshawa context, I think we see a much broader diversification of services and areas of employment, such as health, technology and education. Whereas decades ago, some communities weren't as diversified as we are now," he said.

"I think one of the other key differences is, in the last two to three years, many communities have now implemented new services that are really helping to mitigate the effects of the opioid crisis."

These services include distribution of naxolone kits, training of physicians in new guidelines on prescription practices issued by the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons, what is known as rapid addiction medicine, distribution of new fentanyl test kits and the creation of new outreach worker positions.

Oshawa ranks the sixth highest of all Ontario municipalities in terms of emergency room visits related to opioids. Lakeridge Health is monitoring that rate, McGary added.

With files from Metro Morning, Camille Gris Roy, Muriel Draaisma