The rate of deaths related to opioid painkillers in Ontario increased by nearly 250 per cent between 1991 and 2010, according to a new study from Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences.

The study, published Monday in the journal Addiction, found that the rate of opioid-related death in Ontario rose from 12.2 deaths per one million in 1991 (about 127 deaths annually) to 41.6 deaths per one million in 2010 (about 550 deaths annually). This marks an increase of about 242 per cent.

The study's lead author, ICES scientist and principal investigator with the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network Tara Gomes, said the problem appears to be especially acute among young people.

Among people aged 25 to 34, one of every eight deaths is related to opioids, the study found.

“To us, these findings are quite striking,” Gomes told Monday. “I think it’s incredibly concerning, the degree to which opioid overdoses are affecting young people in Ontario.”

Opioids are a type of prescription pain medication that can include strong painkillers such as oxycodone, morphine and codeine. Researchers say young people may perceive opioids as safer drugs because they are prescribed.

In the study, researchers from St. Michael's Hospital and ICES reviewed 5,935 opioid-related deaths that occurred in Ontario between 1991 and 2010.

They found that opioid-related deaths are a leading cause of premature death, resulting in 21,927 years of potential life lost annually. This exceeds the years of potential life lost annually due to alcohol use, pneumonia, HIV/AIDS and influenza.

Betty-Lou Kristy, whose only child died of an opioid overdose at age 25, said she was not surprised by the study’s findings.

Kristy told CTV News that her son Peter had been taking OxyContin, along with other meds, before his death.

"He got addicted to it and started double doctoring and then was able to get it on the streets," she said.

Gomes said the researchers couldn’t identify how people who died got the opioids, but they believe that most of them – at least initially – got the drugs through legitimate prescriptions.

Although some of the opioid-related deaths were suicides, the vast majority of them were accidental, Gomes said.

The study was published as pressure mounts on Canada to ban an older form of an opioid painkiller that was banned in the U.S. last year.

A form of OxyContin can still befound in several U.S. states, and there is data indicating the pills are coming from Canada.

The older version of OxyContin is easier to crush, which can help users achieve an instant high. Newer forms of the drug are tamper-resistant, and produced exclusively by U.S. pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma.

Two years ago, the Ontario government removed OxyContin and its replacement, OxyNeo, from the list of drugs funded by the province.

But Gomes said it will likely be years before researchers can determine whether that move had an impact on the rate of opioid abuse and related deaths in Ontario.

The increase in opioid-related deaths since the early 1990s shows “a bit of gap in training for doctors” who are not always exploring alternatives to pain management, Gomes said.

“We do know that Canada is second only to the United States for per capita consumption of opioids in the world so, as a nation, we are consuming opioids at quite an alarming rate,” she said.

While opioids are necessary for many patients experiencing severe pain, pain management clinics and non-medicinal alternatives could be beneficial in less serious cases, Gomes said.  

“I don’t think that message is getting across enough yet to prescribers that these are very dangerous drugs and that they should really consider when it is appropriate to prescribe these for one of these patients and when they should be looking for alternatives,” she said.

With a report from CTV’s John Vennavally-Rao