The180·The 180

Opinion: media coverage is making the opioid crisis worse

There's been no shortage of news coverage of fentanyl overdoses in Canada. But Dan Werb says that coverage is missing accurate analysis about drug policy and drug markets. The drug policy analyst says the penchant for clickbait and provocative news headlines are making the opioid crisis worse.
Bags of fentanyl mixed with caffeine, seized by Calgary police. (CBC)
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It's hard to read about opioids like fentanyl these days, and not get a sense of disaster. 

In Ontario, the Minister of Health recently said Canada is facing a "public health crisis" and in April, officials in B.C. declared a public health emergency after a spike in fentanyl related deaths. In that province, nearly 500 people have died of fentanyl overdoses between January and August.

While Dan Werb concedes public health officials are dealing with a serious problem, he argues the media needs to do better when they cover opioids. 

Werb, the Director of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, says the reality of drug use and addiction doesn't match up with the impression the public can get when reading media coverage. 

He argues journalists often fail to provide context around fentanyl — and it's context he argues is important not only to increase public understanding but to help shape policy. 

The role of the media here is to provide the context — not only report on what the situation is now, but to provide some context. -Dan Werb

"The reality is that one of the key drivers of the opioid crisis was the over-prescribing of pharmaceutical drugs like Oxycontin. That in turn lead to high levels of opioid dependence, addiction, and overdose," he says. 

Werb says, in response, the media perpetuated the notion that Oxycontin was the problem, the government reacted, Oxycontin was pulled from the market, and the supply was throttled. 

But drug markets are complicated, according to Werb, and the notion that a supply line can be simply cut off without something else emerging to take its place is naive. 

When we closed the tap, and when we restricted the supply of Oxycontin and Percocet, what we saw was an expansion of use of these other drugs that are much more dangerous like street fentanyl and carfentanil. - Dan Werb

In Werb's view, the most important angle on drug use and addiction in Canada is not an investigation of which drug is being consumed, but identifying the motivation behind substance use disorders in the first place. 

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