Opioid use more widespread than previously thought: UN report

Updated June 27, 2019


The number of people who are thought to suffer from drug use disorders is now estimated to be 35.3 million, says UN. — Reuters/File
The number of people who are thought to suffer from drug use disorders is now estimated to be 35.3 million, says UN. — Reuters/File

ISLAMABAD: Adverse health consequences of opioids are far more severe and widespread than previously thought, with some 35 million people globally estimated to suffer from drug use disorders, said the United Nations in a global report released on Wednesday.

The report World Drug Report 2019 released by the UN Office for Drugs and Crime in commemoration of World Drug Abuse Day (June 26), says in 2017, some 53.4 million people worldwide had used opioids — an umbrella term for drugs ranging from opium and derivatives such as heroin to synthetics like fentanyl and tramadol — in the previous year, 56 per cent higher than the estimate for 2016. Among those people, 29.2 million had used opiates such as heroin and opium, 50 per cent higher than the 2016 estimate of 19.4 million.

The Near and Middle East and South-West Asia is the sub-region with the highest annual prevalence of opiate use, at 1.6 per cent of the population. However, in terms of numbers of users, 35 per cent of the global opioid users and almost half of all opiate users worldwide reside in South Asia.

The report says that with new information from India and Nigeria, the number of people who are thought to suffer from drug use disorders is now estimated to be 35.3 million. This number is 15 per cent higher than the previous estimate of 30.5 million.

In 2017, an estimated 271 million people, or 5.5 per cent of the global population aged 15-64, had used drugs in the previous year. While this is similar to the 2016 estimate, a longer-term view reveals that the number of people who use drugs is now 30 per cent higher than it was in 2009.

Estimated global illicit manufacture of cocaine reached an all-time high of 1,976 tons in 2017, an increase of 25 per cent on the previous year. At the same time, the global quantity of cocaine seized in 2017 rose by 13 per cent to 1,275 tons, the largest quantity ever reported.

Prevention and treatment continue to fall short in many parts of the world, with only one in seven people with drug use disorders receiving treatment each year. This is particularly striking in prisons. This year’s report provides in-depth analysis of drug use and its adverse health consequences in prison settings, which suggests that the prevalence of infectious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis C and active tuberculosis, and related risks, are disproportionately higher among prison populations than among the general population, in particular among those who inject drugs in prison.

Afghanistan was again the country responsible for the vast majority of the world’s illicit opium poppy cultivation and opium production in 2018. The 263,000 hectares under cultivation in Afghanistan in 2018 dwarfs cultivation in nearest rivals Myanmar and Mexico.

Overall, the global area cultivated fell by some 17 per cent in 2018 to 346,000 ha, largely as a result of a drought in Afghanistan. Also, opium prices in Afghanistan fell rapidly between 2016 and 2018, probably because of overproduction in previous years, making the crop less lucrative for farmers.

Some 86 per cent of all opiates seized in 2017 were intercepted in Asia, the region that accounts for more than 90 per cent of global illicit opium production. Global interceptions of heroin have increased at a faster pace than production, suggesting a likely increase in the efficiency of law enforcement efforts and international cooperation.

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2019