Prescription opioids are killing more middle-aged Australians than heroin with a substantial increase in the rate of accidental opioid-related overdoses in the past 10 years.
A report from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) reveals the rate of accidental opioid deaths has more than doubled among Australians aged 35 to 44 since 2007.
It revealed that 70 per cent of the deaths were due to strong prescription painkillers rather than heroin.
Lead author of the report Amanda Roxburgh says opioid related deaths among 45 to 54 year olds are now higher than at the peak of the heroin epidemic in 2001.
"The opioid related deaths we are seeing today are showing very different patterns to what we saw at the peak of the heroin epidemic in the late 1990s and early 2000s," Ms Roxburgh said.
Analysis of the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures found in 2013, 597 people aged between 15 and 54 died from accidental overdose of opioids.
Those aged 35 to 54 were more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose, while overdose rates among the young are declining.
In 2013, the rate of accidental overdose deaths due to opioids in Australia was 46.7 per million persons aged 15 to 54 years, compared to 44.7 per million persons in 2012.
Projections suggest the rates will continue to rise, says Ms Roxburgh.
"We've done some estimates based on the ABS' preliminary data for 2014-15 and we know that the trend is going to continue increasing," she told AAP.
An ageing population experiencing chronic pain is partly to blame for the trend, Ms Roxburgh says.
Research fellow Dr James McAuley at Neuroscience Research Australia believes high opioid prescription rates for low back pain may have led to the increase in opioid related deaths.
Previous research conducted by Dr McAuley found almost 20 per cent of patients with low back pain were prescribed an opioid by their GP.
"Despite opioids known side effects, including the development of a tolerance to the drug, opioids continue to be prescribed at high rates for low back pain," Dr McAuley said.
Ms Roxburgh said those deaths were preventable and it was vital the conversation around prescription opioid use continued.
"We probably need to think about other forms of treatment for chronic pain that doesn't involve medications long term and there's really good evidence that psychological and behavioural treatment can successfully help people in better managing their chronic pain," she said.