Pharmaceutical Drugs and Your Community overview

It is vital that communities in Australia are aware of the risks and benefits of using these addictive medications, and that action is being taken to promote the safest use of pharmaceutical drugs to avoid preventable harms, such as dependence.

What is the Pharmaceutical Drug and Your Community toolkit?

The Pharmaceutical Drugs and Your Community toolkit outlines different strategies communities can adopt to prevent and minimise risk from the two addictive pharmaceutical drug types causing the most harm in Australia – opioid painkillers and benzodiazepines.

This includes educating people about alternative and complementary therapies to pharmaceutical drugs that don’t have negative side-effects, such as diet and lifestyle changes, counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy, and relaxation and mindfulness techniques.

Medical consultation

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines, also known as minor tranquilisers, include brand names such as Valium® and Xanax®. They are prescribed for managing acute stress, anxiety, or insomnia.

These drugs can carry side effects such as risk of dependence, poor concentration, dizziness, daytime drowsiness, and a lack of coordination.

The risk of experiencing these negative effects may increase the longer these drugs are taken. Evidence suggests that benzodiazepines are not the best option when treating ongoing anxiety or insomnia.

After alcohol, the most common type of drug involved in drug induced deaths in Australia is benzodiazepines.[1]

Opioid painkillers

Opioids[2] are strong painkillers either derived from the opium poppy, or chemically synthesised to mimic the effects of chemicals derived from the opium poppy. Morphine, codeine, oxycodone and fentanyl are all legal opioids. Heroin is an illegal opioid.

Opioids help many Australians manage intense pain after events like surgery or dental work. These drugs can carry side effects such as risk of dependence, constipation, mental cloudiness or confusion, nausea, and reduced sex drive. The risk of experiencing these negative effects may increase the longer these drugs are taken. Evidence suggests they are not the best option for managing ongoing pain.

The second most common type of drug involved in drug induced deaths in Australia, aside from alcohol, is prescription opioids.[3]

Poly-drug use

When drugs are taken together it increases the risk of harm. Opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol are all depressant drugs which slow down the central nervous system.

Taking multiple depressant drugs together increases the risk of overdose.

In 96% of drug induced deaths involving benzodiazepines, other drugs such as alcohol were also involved.[4]

It’s critical that when taking action to address the harms of pharmaceutical drugs, the issue of poly-drug use is also addressed. This is especially important because some people do not recognise alcohol as a drug or may not understand how it interacts with other drugs, including pharmaceuticals.

Increasing the level of understanding of pharmaceutical drugs can be beneficial for individuals, families, and the whole community.

Which target audience should Pharmaceutical Drugs and Your Community activities focus on?

Depending on the needs of a specific community, programs could focus on:

  • Raising awareness in the whole community
  • Providing information specifically to pre and post-surgery patients, or those suffering from conditions like anxiety, stress, insomnia and chronic pain
  • Supporting parents to role-model positive medication use and alternatives to medication with their young children
  • Working with sporting clubs or workplaces to educate, promote health and wellbeing, and ensure there is a relevant policy in place
  • Educating older people (see the Alcohol, Other Drugs and Older People toolkit)
  • Working with primary health care providers to promote and create pathways to alternative and complementary pain management therapies
  • Spreading awareness about treatment pathways for people who may be dependent.

How do Pharmaceutical Drugs and Your Community activities help to prevent alcohol and drug-related issues?

Many Australians may believe pharmaceuticals are safe because they are legal drugs, and that medical guidance can be followed loosely. However, it is pharmaceutical drugs, not illegal drugs, that are the most likely to be involved in a drug induced death in Australia.[5]

People may not be aware they are engaging in drug misuse if they:

  • Take more than has been prescribed
  • Take it in a different way than has been prescribed
  • Combine their medication with other drugs such as alcohol
  • Share prescriptions with friends or family.

Medication misuse can be deliberate – such as when people take a pharmaceutical drug for a euphoric or other psychoactive effect.

Both opioid painkillers and benzodiazepines are generally only recommended for short-term use, but they are being used by many Australians over longer periods of time.

It’s vital that Australians have a clear understanding of the risks and benefits of using these addictive medications. People need to be supported to limit their use, including through access to alternative and complementary therapies as part of their pain management strategy.

Taking action on Pharmaceutical Drugs can help by increasing:

  • Awareness about the potential harms of some pharmaceutical drugs
  • Understanding of accidental and intentional misuse
  • Parent’s confidence to role-model positive behaviour around medication use to their kids
  • Knowledge about complementary and alternative therapies
  • Opportunities for community members to learn pain management strategies, or techniques such as meditation, relaxation, and mindfulness.

How effective is the Pharmaceutical Drugs and Your Community activity?

Strengthening the community’s knowledge on the risks and benefits of pharmaceutical drugs, including alternative and complementary therapies, can be an effective way to improve a range of health outcomes community-wide.

Successful prevention campaigns and programs have shown that a comprehensive approach using multiple strategies leads to the greatest change.

This could mean combining a range of activities, such as a broad community awareness campaign and/or a targeted information campaign for high-risk demographics, as well as community workshops that increase knowledge about and skills in alternative therapies such as relaxation and mindfulness, or healthy lifestyles including diet and exercise.