opioid warning label

Canada’s Opioid Crisis: Warning Labels, increasing deaths, better drug tests, & more

Health Canada is requiring warning labels and patient information handouts for opioids, marking a first for these kinds of medicine, which puts the pharmaceutical painkillers in a similar league as tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis. In addition, pharmaceutical companies will have to develop mandatory opioid risk management plans as well.

This development is a positive step forward because at least governments are beginning to recognize the key role that pharmaceutical painkillers have played in the opioid crisis, and while the effectiveness of these health warnings can be debated- just look at the ones for alcohol or tobacco- opioid producers should be held accountable.


The requirement does not go into effect until October and will comprise of a warning sticker slapped onto the pill bottle before it’s given to the patient.

A sample of the patient information handout, which includes information on serious warnings, signs of overdose, and side effects, is included below:

opioid warning

In the United States, Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced a new bill- the Opioid Crisis Accountability Act of 2018– that if passed would mean billions of dollars in fines and jail time for pharma execs caught violating it.

Cannabis gets a stop sign while opioids get a yellow yield sign?

opioids warning labelSo wait, let’s get this straight. Cannabis, a relatively benign drug with a plethora of medical and recreational uses gets a red stop sign warning label, while opioids, which killed over 122,000 people globally in 2015, gets a yellow yield sign?

Given the continuing anti-cannabis, prohibitionist hysteria, that sounds about right.

Opioids kill thousands of Canadians a year

Health Canada recently released a national report which found there were 2,946 apparent opioid-related deaths in 2016 and at least 2,932 opioid-related deaths in the first nine months of 2017. As one might expect, Canada’s four biggest provinces reported the highest number of deaths, but in an order that might surprise you.

opioid warning labelCanada’s top four most populous provinces, in order, are:

  1. Ontario
  2. Quebec
  3. BC
  4. Alberta

Despite BC being Canada’s third most populous province, it had the most drug-related deaths, although it should be noted the 985 deaths includes all unintentional illicit drug deaths and not just those from opioids.

Another surprising take away from the report is that Alberta’s 611 deaths far outshadows Quebec’s 140, yet Quebec has double Alberta’s population! But at the same time, Quebec’s death toll is expected to rise once more data and information becomes available.

A possible factor for the high number of deaths in the western provinces is their relative proximity to China, which is the primary source of fentanyl for Canada and the United States. Taken together, Alberta and BC have almost twice as many deaths than Ontario, yet Ontario’s population is 1.5 times bigger than BC’s and Alberta’s combined.

opioid warning label
Graph courtesy of the Globe and Mail

Fentanyl is a powerful opioid pain medication that is increasingly involved in opioid-related deaths, and Health Canada has found that:  

From January to September 2017, 72% of accidental apparent opioid-related deaths involved fentanyl or fentanyl analogues, compared to 55% in 2016.

That’s a 17% increase in one year!

Portable drug testing devices 

As fentanyl has been reported in other non-opioid streets drugs like cocaine, it is more important than ever to have sites where people can test and use their drugs safely.

Scientists are turning to mass spectrometers to accurately test drugs in seconds- which is a vast improvement over the months it can take standard labs- as researchers from the University of Ottawa and Carleton University have joined together to set up a portable mass spectrometer at a safe injection site in Ottawa.

The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act

In other news, have you heard about Canada’s Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act? It became law on May 4, 2017, prioritizes saving lives over criminalization by offering legal protection from drug possession charges to those who witness or suffer an overdose. The act protects any person who seeks help, along with anyone who may be on the scene when help arrives.


Featured image courtesy of Nelson Star.


CTV News: Portable device can detect fentanyl in street drugs within seconds: researchers.

Globe and Mail: Fentanyl’s Deadly Path.

Government of Canada: Apparent Opioid-Related Deaths.

Government of Canada: National report: Apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada (December 2017)

Government of Canada: Opioid Warning Sticker and Patient Information Handout, and Risk Management Plans.

Nelson Star: Health Canada to require warning stickers on all opioid prescriptions.