Business leadership missing in the battle to end B.C.’s opioid crisis

The pandemic has intensified our mental health challenges.

The stress of loneliness, of loss and sorrow, of job disruption and desperation, of business problems and pressures, of daily uncertainty and destabilized routines – many in our social and professional circles have collided with at least one element of this widened anxiety.

Can we be surprised that alcohol sales are up by about one-third? Can we find unusual anymore the casual cannabis daytime scent as we walk our streets? Can we doubt there are professionals who are daily users, who are even working addicts we may not see but are among us – among even those close to us?

We live in British Columbia amid a dual deathtrap. There is the coronavirus, for which we now have a vaccine. There is another injection into the arm, about which we are profoundly helpless – and, tragically in the business community, silent.

Where is the leadership? Why does the community feel this is not an intrinsic, integral matter of both moral import and public well-being? What does it take?

Some data from the BC Coroners Service might make readers understand this is not something that happens to the “others” – not that that would ever make it excusable to ignore. It might make a difference to know the victims of the opioid crisis, of drug overdoses, are not any longer the experienced user or the orthodox addict but have long included the naïve or despondent experimenter – many from walks of life we would have routinely encountered pre-pandemic but have detached from due to COVID-19.

Here are some clues to the rampant progression of accidental death, 85% of which involved fentanyl:

•The 155 B.C. deaths in February were a record and a 107% increase over a year earlier. They were consistently growing month-to-month, too, an 11% increase over January.

•The record total of 1,724 deaths in 2021 featured a surge that started with the pandemic.

•This is not a young person’s game any longer. Nearly 70% of the deaths in 2021 are among those 30 to 59, 40% of the deaths are among those older than 50, and 15% among those older than 60.

•This is not only a big-city issue. Sure, Vancouver’s death rate was high, but so were the rates in the Northeast, Northwest, the Northern Interior and the Thompson Cariboo, in Fort Nelson, Quesnel, Keremeos, Hope and Prince George.

•Four in five deaths were men, so perhaps the scarier statistic is that one in five deaths were women.

•Nearly six in 10 deaths do not take place in an alleyway or in prison or in a treatment centre. They take place in a private residence.

The illegal drug toxicity numbers rose dramatically in 2016, dipped somewhat in 2019, but have soared in 2020 and to date this year. On average, 143 people died each month last year in B.C.

If we wish to note that these victims were not our friends and acquaintances, can we be sure these were not people we would have done business with – our customers, our suppliers, their sons and fathers and daughters and mothers? Of course we can’t, but the business community has been on mute, as we say in the Zoom era.

Just as business has in recent years embraced the need for child care, the need for inclusiveness and diversity, and the need for environmental, social and governance excellence, it is time to embrace the need for attention to the malingering menace of the opioid crisis. The community donates generously, but this needs advocacy more than philanthropy.

If you want to be crass about it, attention would be plainly, simply good business. These are our employees, our managers, our successors, our past, present and future. Yet to our community they are invisible, thus irrelevant – their struggles and defeats a world apart.

Our business community has yet to take the stigma out of drug use, much less drug addiction. Even if you employ that cold business lens, we are not calculating that those who are battling addictions miss nearly 50% more work.

We are not holding judgment-free discussions with employees to mitigate excessive prescriptions or ensuring that post-surgery care or medical leaves are not endangering gateways.

We are not seeing that the pandemic’s disruptions extend into our obligations to share responsibility for how our employees relieve their anxieties.

We are not recognizing that more than half of these deaths follow work-related injuries and that about one in four who are prescribed painkillers grow addicted to them.

We are not joining the argument for a safe drug supply and recognizing it is an inefficient, ineffective use of our public safety resources to wage a fruitless war on drugs when we could apply those resources to treatment, to aversion and, even more profitably, to investing in a hopeful plan.

We are not fighting for expanded access to treatment in the way we would fight for a tax cut or an investment in an industry.

It is long past time to set aside the silence.

History is replete with efforts by business to tackle the afflictions of the communities they occupy, to feed and comfort those who fall into despair and desolation.

Our eyes are properly on the pandemic and the threat it poses to survival, but the constant drumbeat we must also hear is of our opioid crisis and the very same threat it stands to provide once COVID is subdued. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.