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‘The welfare state has failed them’: Norway's plan to address drug overdose deaths

Frazer Norwell
Frazer Norwell - [email protected]
‘The welfare state has failed them’: Norway's plan to address drug overdose deaths
Norway has seen a sharp increase of overdose deaths. Pictured are Bottles of Naloxone, used to treat a narcotic overdose in an emergency situation. Photo by Angela Weiss/ AFP

Norway will look to reverse an increase in drug and alcohol-related deaths, and the country’s health minister has announced several measures aimed at achieving this.

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Drug-related deaths are at a 20-year high in Norway. Last year, some 363 deaths were reported to be the result of an overdose, which was the highest figure since 2001. There were also 450 alcohol-related deaths in 2023.

“We must recognise that the welfare state has failed for many of them and has not stood up when they have needed it most,” health minister Jan Christian Vestre told TV 2.

While the raw numbers may not seem too dramatic for a country of 5.5 million people, the numbers are quite high compared to some other European countries.

Figures from Eurostat, the EU’s data agency, measured the incidence of drug overdose deaths per million people in Norway at 63 in 2021, placing it among the highest in Europe.

More recent figures from Europe compiled by The Economist also had Norway as one of the countries with the highest incident rates, with 86 people dying as a result of an overdose per million of the population.

Ireland (97) and Estonia (95) had a higher incidence rate than Norway.

Heroin has long been the most common cause of overdoses in Norway. However, prescription drugs now dominate the overdose statistics. Opioids such as morphine, codeine and oxycodone were the most common cause of overdose deaths, followed by heroin, and then synthetic opioids such as protonitazen, buprenorphine, fentanyl and pethidine.

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In 2023, the number of deaths caused by synthetic opioids was at an all-time high, The Norwegian Institute of Public Health said in a report on overdose deaths.

When asked whether Norway was struggling with an opioid crisis, Vestre said there was every cause for concern.

“The way the numbers are showing now, I think there is every reason for concern and uneasiness,” he said.

“If we do not get control of this situation, and introduce effective measures, the situation could get worse. We must, by all means, avoid that,” he added.

Action plans to prevent drug deaths by previous governments have emphasised heroin as the biggest problem. However, Vestre said the situation had changed.

The health minister has said that three immediate measures would be implemented to try and curb the number of overdose deaths.

Norway’s Directorate of Health has been tasked with implementing an action plan against overdoses, both as a result of illegal and prescription drugs.

New methods would also be established to monitor drug use to allow the authorities to implement measures much faster.

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The health minister also wants to improve and increase treatment options for those with addiction issues. He said there needed to be a robust offer for those with the most severe addiction issues, and he wanted to make treatment for people with addiction more accessible. This measure would include improved access to drug-assisted rehabilitation.

Norway’s Directorate of Health has said that it would consider tightening the use of opioids in the health service.

“ It is certainly one of the things we are now looking at. Both the prescribing rules and stricter requirements for de-escalation plans. In this way, patients who are on strong painkillers for a shorter period of time get a clear plan for when to stop using them,” the directorate told TV 2.

Despite the measures announced, Norway’s government has dragged its heels on a wider drug reform plan. The reform was supposed to be unveiled at the beginning of the year before being postponed.

No date has been set for the unveiling of the reform.

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