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Report: Drug overdose leading cause of death among men under 40 in Finland

Nearly 200 people died of a drug overdose in Finland in 2016, according to an EU drug monitoring agency. The data show that men are over-represented in deaths due to drug overdoses.

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Image: Yle

According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction EMCDDA, there were 194 cases of death due to drug overdose in 2016 – an increase of 28 cases on the previous year. The agency has based its findings on data provided by Statistics Finland.

The agency found that men are over-represented in the proportion of deaths caused by drug overdose, which is one of the leading causes of death among men under the age of forty in Finland.

In fact, fatal drug overdose cases rank alongside suicide, cancer and accidents as one of the most common causes of death in this age group.

The agency reported that more than two-thirds of drug overdose fatalities – some 77 percent – involve men.

By 2015, the average age of men who succumbed to a drug overdose was 38, compared to 51 for women.

Finland mirroring EU trends

Moreover the overall proportion of overdose deaths in Finland has increased steadily in the 20 years between 1996 and 2016. However the proportion of overdose cases relative to all deaths was highest in 2012.

In the twenty years between 1996 and 2016, the proportion of overdoses has increased slowly but surely. The highest proportion of overdoses so far was in 2012.

The rising trend of fatal drug overdoses in Finland reflects a similar situation in Europe. According to the drug use agency, in Europe, opioid users have a five to 10 times higher risk of death than their non drug using peers of the same age and sex.

The increased risk of mortality is mainly due to overdose, but there are other causes of death that can be indirectly linked to drug use. They include infections, accidents, violence and suicide.

The researchers note that poor health is also common among drug users, with chronic lung, liver and cardiovascular disease widespread.

However the agency has noted that the data behind the report should be interpreted with caution, given that there is systematic under-reporting from some countries. It also said that some registration procedures may also result in delayed reporting.

ODs reported in virtually every age group

At the European level, the UK and Germany account for roughly half of all overdoses in Europe. In the case of opioid-related deaths, heroin used in conjunction with other substances accounts for the largest proportion of deaths.

Here again, the agency found that the highest mortality rate in northern Europe is among men aged 35 – 39.

On average, roughly 20 people per one million inhabitants in the EU died of an overdose in 2015. The highest rates occur in Estonia, where there were 103 deaths by overdose in one million inhabitants.

The report recommended substitution therapy using methadone as a means of reducing deaths among individuals dependent on opioids.

Finland starts debate on decriminalising drug use

Back in February, two experts from the National Institute for Health and Welfare THL called for a rethink of current practice that criminalises drug use in Finland .

In a blog post, researcher Pekka Hakkarainen and THL development manager Tuukka Tammi proposed a greater emphasis on preventing and managing drug use, rather than penalising it. They pointed to smoking as an example of a vice that public health officials have been able to scale back without criminalisation.

The duo asserted that decriminalising drug use does not lead to increased abuse of narcotic substances. They pointed to Portugal, where drug use and possession of small amounts of narcotics were decriminalised in 2001.

Social services also played an enhanced role in tackling drug use, they said. The THL writers noted that the legislative and administrative changes reduced the ill-effects of drug use without increasing drug use. They added that in Norway, district courts have reached a decision-in-principle to replace criminal sanctions with social and health care measures.

MPs divided on issue

Yle Svenska polled three Finnish lawmakers on the merits of the proposal floated by the THL blog writers. Centre Party MP and former head of the organisation that preceded the THL, Pekka Puska noted that several international studies support the notion of decriminalising drug use.

“The drug problem is serious and the situation is not as good as it could be. We need better methods and this can be an important issue. We must remember that this is not the same as legalising drugs, rather we need better methods to get treatment for people,” Puska commented.

National Coalition Party MP Kari Tolvanen's background involves prior experience with the violent crime unit of the Helsinki Police Department. He said that it is important to send a signal that drug use is not acceptable

“It still has a preventative function. Certainly, it may mean that [drug] use goes undetected. But if you look at the safety on the streets, we can only imagine how it will change if it's okay to smoke grass and use syringes in the parks," he added.

Tolvanen noted that police officers are already required to direct drug users towards social and health services to deal with addiction. He added that registering offences may be important for reasons of professional safety.

“If someone is looking for a job in health care, or as a driver, a police officer, a firefighter or a pilot, it's good to be able to check that the person does not use drugs," he observed.

Assignment for the next government?

Meanwhile Green MP and chair of Parliament’s Social and Health Committee Outi Alanko-Kahiluoto said the current system focuses too heavily on punishment.

“You must get away from the criminal label - to be afraid to have a blemish on your record. It's bad if you're afraid to get bank loans or insurance and if you cannot apply for some jobs," said Alanko-Kahiluoto.

Alanko-Kahiluoto said she supports milder sanctions, but said she wavered on the question of total decriminalisation.

"I would be careful about sending the message that drugs are not dangerous. We must first carefully see what has happened in the countries that have decriminalised, she added.

Puska, who also sits on the Social and Health Committee, said that there may be more support for decriminalising drug use following next year’s general election.

“Now that THL experts have come out and the debate has begun, I think there will be a discussion within the government. I think that after the election, the next parliament will discuss it and perhaps make some decisions,” he concluded.

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