A UN report shows that global opioid use is rising with the number of people taking the drug 56 per cent higher than previously estimated.
The global number of people who take opioids is 56 per cent higher than previously estimated, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said on Wednesday in a report that highlighted a number of negative trends.
The number of drug-related deaths reached 585,000 in 2017, and cocaine production jumped to a new record that year, the Vienna-based agency said in its annual report.
The number of opioid users was revised to 53 million people because of the results of large surveys that were carried out in India and Nigeria, which are among the world's largest countries.
With a clearer picture on these two countries, the UNODC also upgraded its global estimate for addicts and people who need drug treatment by 15 per cent, to 35 million.
These estimates are based on global data from 2017.
Opioids include natural opiates that are derived from the poppy, like heroin, as well as synthetic opioids that are at the root of North America's drug problem.
"Drug overdoses have really reached epidemic proportions in North America," UNODC research chief Angela Me said at a press briefing.
More than 47,000 people died from lethal opioid doses in the United States in 2017, and nearly 4,000 people in Canada. The powerful analgesic fentanyl and similar substances are the main killers among drug users in this region.
That year, a global total of 585,000 people died from overdoses and drug-related diseases. More than a fifth were opioid addicts.
UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov said on Wednesday that most of the dead were young women and men.
"And all these deaths are preventable," he said, pointing to lacking health care for the hundreds of thousands of drug users who die each year of hepatitis C, a disease that can be spread through dirty needles.
Besides North America's drug epidemic, the UNODC pointed out that there is another opioid crisis unfolding in African and Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Nigeria and Ghana, where abuse of the pain medication Tramadol has emerged as a problem.
The 2017 Nigerian survey showed that 4.7 per cent of the population had taken Tramadol for non-medical purposes at least once in the previous year.
The substance is popular because it not only has a calming effect, but also works as a stimulant at certain dosage levels.
Global cultivation of the opium poppy, the raw material for heroin, fell 17 per cent to 346,000 hectares in 2018 as a drought hit Afghanistan, the world's biggest opium producer.