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There has been a significant decline in problem opioid use among those aged 15- to-34 between 2015 and 2019, according to a Health Research Board (HRB) study published recently. Levels of use in the 35-to-64 age group have remained stable. In total, there were an estimated 19,875 problem opioid users aged 15-to-64 living in Ireland in 2019 – almost seven problem opioid users in every 1,000 people. 

Opioids, which include heroin, methadone and codeine, are addictive, sedating, narcotic drugs. While some of these drugs have valid medical purposes, their misuse as ‘street drugs’ can lead to many health and social issues. 

The typical problem opioid user in Ireland today is male (seven-in-10 of the total), aged between 35 and 64 (seven-in-10 of the total), and lives in Dublin. Dublin counts for by far the highest numbers of problem opioid users in the country, with almost 13 per 1,000 inhabitants — which is three times the prevalence in the rest of Ireland (nearly four problem opioid users per 1,000 people). 

Commenting on the report’s finding about a decline in younger people using opioids, lead author Dr Michael Hanrahan, commissioned by the HRB to conduct this research at University College Cork, said: “The decline in opioid use among young people is a positive development and could be attributed to the negative image of heroin among young people or the provision of prompt treatment that can break a cycle whereby heroin users introduce the drug to others, or a combination of these factors. This finding should also be viewed in light of recent data in the HRB’s National Drug and Alcohol Survey, which found that the use of stimulant-type drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy has increased among younger age groups since 2014.” 

The HRB commissions this type of research on behalf of the Department of Health in line with the current Government strategy ‘Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery: A health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017-2025’, which Government says aims to develop sound and comprehensive evidence-informed policies and actions. 

HRB Chief Executive Dr Mairead O’Driscoll concluded: “Drug policy can only be effective if we have an accurate picture of the level and nature of drug use within the population. The HRB supports studies like these to enable policy-makers to observe trends, evaluate the effectiveness of interventions and predict where action may be needed in the future.”